Miriam Chanski (left), a Coopersville kindergarten teacher, and Patrick Wright (right), senior legislative analyst, testify for the Michigan Senate Committee on Compliance and Accountability.
The video of this testimony can be seen at goo.gl/QVGF7e
When questioned in December by a Michigan Senate Committee about whether the Michigan Education Association has a fiduciary duty to its members, MEA Spokesperson Doug Pratt said, “In general? Yes.”
According to the dictionary, fiduciary duty includes the responsibility of good faith, candor, confidence and trust. Pratt says he fulfilled those duties of letting teachers know about the “August Window” through the union’s bylaws, membership form, website, and communications with local unions.
However, many teachers, including those with more than 30-years of service, say they have never heard of it.
That is the essence, in part, of the complaints facing the Michigan Education Association. In October, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation filed the unfair labor practice and duty of fair representation charges on behalf of seven Michigan public school teachers and a paraeducator.
These public school employees were denied their rights under Michigan’s Freedom to Work law because they failed to notify the MEA of their intention to leave the union during the month of August, the only month that the MEA claims it will take resignations. Despite the passage of right-to-work legislation, which opened up new choices for public school employees (and other unionized employees), the MEA did almost nothing to make its members aware of this August window until September.
This effectively locked unsuspecting teachers into another year of dues. To put this in context, in the last fiscal year, the MEA collected around $64 million in dues and collected another $69 million from other sources.
The “window” is part of the MEA’s bylaws that were created 40 years ago. The window limitations on withdrawal had been upheld in the context of agency fee payers in a 2004 Michigan Employment Relations Commission decision. Before the passage of right-to-work, teachers could opt out of the union but had to pay an “agency fee” to the union. If teachers wanted to be agency payers they had to inform the union in the month of August. Opting out, however, was not common. Agency fees are about 80 percent of dues, according to the MEA, and teachers often thought the deal was not worth it.
Despite the 2004 MERC decision and the mention of the August Window in the bylaws, many of the MEA’s 113,151 voting members had no clue about the process of leaving the union. The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation’s actions triggered the creation of the Senate Committee on Compliance and Accountability, which held hearings on the MEA’s actions related to the August window. At one of these hearings, State Senator Jack Brandenburg indicated that not a single one of the 15 teachers he contacted about the subject was aware of this August resignation window.
The MEA has taken the position that ignorance is no defense. It has claimed that the information can be obtained on its website (although a search for “resign,” “resignation,” and “August window” on MEA.org does not bring up the relevant page) and that it is in the contract that teachers signed when they were originally hired.
Senator Arlan Meekhof is Chairman of the Committee on Compliance and Accountability. He asked Doug Pratt, the MEA’s temporary director of member benefits, if the union had a fiduciary duty to explain to members the existence of a window. After all, members pay dues in good faith that the union will protect their individual interest. Meekhof read Black’s Law Dictionary’s definition of the word “fiduciary.”
“In general? Uh, yes. We have an obligation to represent them. We have an obligation to support them and to fulfill our end to provide contractual service, yes,” responded Pratt.
“So in that sort of definition under fiduciary duty in the dictionary, you owe them the responsibility of candor, good faith, confidence. Do you think you fulfilled those duties?” asked Meekoff.
“Yes, I do. I believe our membership form, our bylaws on the website, our communication with our locals, [sic] I believe we did,” Pratt said.
Teachers have a different recollection. Miriam Chanski, a young kindergarten teacher in the Coopersville school district, informed her local union that she wanted to end her membership in June. Her decision was sparked by a state policy that ended the practice of public school districts deducting dues from paychecks themselves — rather, the union went around with an “E-dues/PAC authorization form,” wherein it sought to have school employees give the union access to their bank account or credit cards for dues withdrawals. It was the access to her bank account that triggered Chanski’s consideration of right-to-work.
“I did not feel comfortable putting that information on a form and handing it in,” says Chanski. Given that there was no option to withdraw from the union on the form, she handwrote her intention on her “E-Dues” form, put it in an envelope and delivered it to the union representative in June.
In July, Chanski received a letter from the MEA Uniserv Director, Krista Abbott, which stated that she received the incomplete form with Chanski’s note of her intent to opt out.
“I would like to discuss this matter with you further. If it is your intent to ‘opt out’ of paying dues, there is a specific procedure that must be followed to do so,” wrote Abbott.
Since that procedural information was not included in the letter, Chanski called immediately. Unfortunately, she was told that Abbott was out. Chanski began a summer job the following day to supplement her teaching salary and “figured this was part of a game.” She was not called back with further information.
Thus it was a shock when she was told she still owed dues in September. It was then that Chanski received full notification from the union of the August window. Chanski contacted the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and asked for help.
Filing a complaint against the MEA was a bold step for a second year teacher. Chanski knew this could be a sensitive issue; she did not want to cause disruption at work and grew worried about repercussions from the union. Already, a union representative had suggested that her credit rating would suffer if she did not pay full dues.
Chanski decided to go forward with her claim because she felt she had to stand up for what was right. She knew other teachers who were afraid of opting out and she felt like she had to represent them, too. In fact, however, she was not alone.
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation last October filed unfair labor practice complaints on behalf of Chanski, William “Ray” Arthur, Matthew Knapp, Kurt Alliton, Susan Romska, Jason LaPorte and Kathy Eady-Miskiewicz. The media responded with vigor and outlets picked up the story.
The issue became a favored topic on public affairs programming. There were extensive radio interviews and appearances on Michigan Television stations. The Grand Rapids Press, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Saginaw News, Grand Haven Tribune, Petoskey News-Review, Interlochen Public Radio, WDIV and Fox 2 all covered the filings. This extensive coverage, both local and state-wide, was likely key to the creation of the Senate committee.
By simply informing teachers of the “August Window,” the MEA could have saved itself a lot of headache and backlash. It may have even convinced teachers to stay with the union by being completely upfront with them. But it chose to withhold some information from them.
Rather than choosing power over principle and money over members, the MEA should return to its “customer accountability” — and right-to-work is the first step in ensuring they do.