Educators testified about not being allowed out of the union
LANSING — Union officials purposely withheld information teachers needed to opt out of the Michigan Education Association, according to testimony given before a Senate committee Wednesday.
Teachers from across the state said that because they were not told of the one-month window in which they could leave the union, they are now forced to continue to pay dues to an organization that they don't support.
The Senate Compliance and Accountability Committee was formed last week to determine whether there has been compliance with recently enacted state laws. Its initial area of investigation is to look into allegations that the MEA is not fully complying with the right-to-work law.
Much of the committee's first hearing focused on the so-called "August window." The MEA insists that its members can only opt out of the union during the month of August. That claim is disputed by many, including some members of the committee who said that no such limit exists under the right-to-work law.
However, according to testimony, even if the August window were valid, some MEA officials failed to inform teachers about it.
MEA officials have said the teachers missed their chance to opt out and must continue paying union dues.
Miriam Chanski, a kindergarten teacher with the Coopersville School District, told the committee that in May or early June she wrote on her e-dues form that she planned to leave the union.
"I put that I was opting out," Chanski said. "In July, I received a letter from the [union] Uniserv Director acknowledging that the union had been notified that I wished to not join.
"In September, the president of the [Coopersville school district] union came to my classroom before school and said she had heard I wanted to opt out of the union," Chanski continued. "She asked me if I had sent in a separate letter to the MEA. I said I wasn't aware that was required. Then she told me that I had missed the August window."
Chanski said the union president claimed the August window had been discussed at several union meetings, but Chanski said that wasn't true.
Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, asked Chanski if she had attended all of the meetings.
"Correct," Chanski responded.
"So, apparently you were supposed to be a mind reader," Sen. Schuitmaker said.
Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, chairman of the committee, asked Chanski if her major complaint about the MEA was its lack of communication with members.
Chanski said she thought the union had done more than just neglect to mention the August window.
"I think it was actively hidden from us," Chanski said.
Susan Bank, a special education teacher in the Novi Community School District testified on what she experienced when she tried to get out of the MEA. She said she thought she'd made it clear that she was opting out when she refused to turn in her paperwork to continue having union dues taken from her paychecks.
The union never made it clear what steps had to be taken to opt out, she testified. In addition, Bank said that the treasurer of her local school union said her credit rating could be negatively affected if she didn't resume paying dues.
Sen. Meekhof asked Bank what she thought the treasurer meant by that.
"I thought she meant that the union would turn it over to a collection agency," Bank said.
"I have talked to at least five other teachers," Bank continued. "I have found out five of them felt they had to pay their dues because they were feeling intimidated. But next year they're going to make sure they're not going to be in the union."
Amy Breza, a Clarkston Community School paraeducator, told the committee that her school union president came into her classroom in September while Breza was working with a non-verbal special needs student and told Breza she wanted her to pay the dues.
"I said I can't talk to you now, I'm with a student," Breza said of the conversation she had with the union president. "I wrote it down on a paper afterwards. She said, 'I'm trying to help you save your job and I don't want you to get in trouble with the MEA'."
Breza also testified that she thought she was out of the union but no one had told her about the MEA's August window.
At least four other teachers are expected to testify at future committee hearings. Sen. Meekhof told the committee that the MEA would be given its opportunity to testify on Dec. 4.
Chanski and Breza, along with other teachers from across the state, are being represented by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation in complaints filed against their local unions and the MEA with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.
A video of the testimony: