Helping Teachers Exercise Their Legal Rights

Michigan’s right-to-work law, a long-time Mackinac Center priority that was enacted in 2012, lets employees refuse their support to unions with which they disagree. But that right is an empty promise if unions can find ways to deny people the ability to leave. The unions tried just about every trick in the book to hide this right from their members or create obstacles to exercising this right. Foremost among these unions was the Michigan Education Association, which insisted that employees could only exercise their newfound rights during one month of the year, August.

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After right-to-work passed, the union made no effort to inform its general membership of its rights, or about the hoops it imposed on members who wished to leave. When teachers stopped sending in money without following the union’s obscure instructions about leaving, the MEA came after them for unpaid back dues, hiring collection agencies to pursue the teachers and hurt their credit ratings.

The Mackinac Center challenged the so-called August window through lawsuits in several tribunals. One such lawsuit, brought on behalf of four teachers from the Saginaw school district, was brought in the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, the state’s administrative body that oversees many of the state’s labor laws. The four teachers — Matthew Knapp, Susan Romska, Jason LaPorte, and Kathy Eady-Miskiewicz — had tried to get out of the MEA after the month of August. But like most teachers, they simply didn’t know about the requirement hidden in the union’s bylaws.

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation argued on behalf of these teachers that the new law superseded any of the MEA’s internal procedures. It also alleged that the MEA, as the legal representative of these teachers, had a duty to inform them of their legal rights and the proper procedures for exercising them.

On September 23, 2015, the MERC agreed unanimously with our argument that employees have the right to resign from a union at any time. It held that the MEA had unlawfully restrained teachers from exercising their rights. It also noted that while the union “had legitimate business reasons for establishing the annual window period for membership resignation, those reasons cannot take precedence over public employees’ statutory rights.”

The MEA requested a stay from the Court of Appeals, which was denied on Nov. 10. The Court of Appeals will reconsider MERC’s decision next year, but until then teachers and other public employees may resign from their unions when they see fit — not simply when the unions tell them that they can.