Kathy Eady-Miskiewicz, Jason LaPorte,Matt Knapp and Susan Romska
From left to right: Kathy Eady-Miskiewicz, Jason LaPorte,Matt Knapp and Susan Romska

In September 2013, the Michigan Education Association had a surprise for the nearly 8,000 public school employees who thought that by not signing up for the union’s e-dues that they were expressing their desire to disaffiliate from the union and thereby exercise their freedoms under Michigan’s newly enacted right to work law.

The union announced that it was going to enforce its little-known bylaw purported to only allow members to resign during the month of August. Through the efforts of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation and four brave Saginaw school teachers, the so-called August window has been declared illegal.

When public school employees were first hired, the MEA made them sign a form where the employee either promised to pay the union cash or allow the school district to take out any dues from the employee’s paycheck. The form did use the word “member” or “membership” in a few places, but provided no guidance as to the terms of membership. The form did not mention the existence or the MEA bylaw and new employees were not systematically, orally informed of them.

For many years, the process of resigning from the MEA was principally of interest to would-be agency fee payers. Agency fee payers were those individuals who instead of paying dues resigned from the union and paid an agency fee instead, which is essentially dues less the proportional amount the union spends on politics. Generally, this would allow an agency fee payer to pay around 20 to 25 percent less than those paying full dues. So, with a typical assessment of $1,000 in dues to the local union, the MEA and the National Education Association, a fee payer would pay around $750 to $800. Given the union harassment often directed at those who chose to become fee payers, many did not consider the savings worth the hassle.

In 2000, one agency fee payer legally challenged the requirement that he resign in August. He lost his case in front of an administrative law judge and won on appeal at the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. The MEA filed an appeal and the teacher did not file a brief since there was only around $40 at stake and he had resigned the following August. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to MERC, which having had a membership change to those more sympathetic to unions upheld the August window largely on the basis that Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act lacked the “right to refrain” language from the National Labor Relations Act, which allowed private-sector employees to resign at any time.

In 2012, two major laws were changed. The first prevented school districts from taking money out of school employees’ checks for the unions’ benefits: the government would no longer be the unions’ bagman. The second was right-to-work.

The MEA and its locals were very active in seeking to get school employees to sign up for “e-dues,” whereby the employee would give the union access to a bank account or credit card and the union would make monthly withdrawals. Multiple email reminders were sent out. While this was going on, the union made no mention of how an employee could exercise right-to-work or how it interacted with the school district’s inability to take out dues. More importantly, the union and it locals went silent on the MEA bylaws and the August window. The end result was that many school employees thought that by not signing up for e-dues that they were resigning from the MEA.

When the MEA revealed its 2013 September surprise, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation sprang into action, filing unfair labor practice complaints on behalf of eight public school employees. The MEA chose to fight the resignation of four teachers from Saginaw: Kathy Eady-Miskiewicz, Matt Knapp, Jason LaPorte and Susan Romska.

Based largely on the inclusion of the right-to-refrain language in Michigan’s right-to-work law, on Sept. 2, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Julia Stern held that the MEA’s August window was illegal. She recommended that MEA cease enforcing it and amend its bylaws to reflect her ruling. Further, if her recommendation is accepted by MERC, the MEA would have to publish a notice in its “MEA Voice” magazine that it violated the law and will no longer enforce its so-called August window.

It is not until MERC accepts this order that it can be enforced and that may not occur for a few months (and will almost certainly lead to an appeal), so those teachers the MEA has already sent to collections are still in limbo. But if this ruling is upheld, it would guide not just the conduct of the MEA but all of Michigan’s government unions, thereby allowing all state and local government workers to resign from their unions at any time.