A decision is expected this fall in a legal case that may ultimately allow Michigan teachers and other public school employees to decide when they may resign their union memberships and avoid paying for union political and social causes with which they disagree.
Teacher Frank Dame of Ogemaw Heights High School filed unfair labor practice charges with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) in October 1998 against his union, the West Branch-Rose City Education Association, an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association (MEA), for limiting members' ability to resign to one month out of the year. Arguments in the case were heard March 11 by MERC Administrative Law Judge James Kurtz.
MERC is the state agency that oversees labor relations between public-sector employers and unions.
Dame decided in April 1998 to resign from the MEA because he disagreed with the political and social causes it supported with his dues money. "I don't want my money used to support some of [the union's] positions," he said.
But union officials told him he had to pay the remainder of his dues for the school year before they would accept his resignation in August, the only month MEA members are allowed to resign.
Dame did successfully resign last August, but he says the union's one-month resignation policy infringes on its members' rights to free speech and free association. "I believe the union was violating my First Amendment rights every day by restricting my right to resign," he said.
According to U. S. Supreme Court rulings, public-sector employees who resign their union memberships are still obligated to pay "service" or "agency" fees to the union for employee representation duties such as collective bargaining, grievance adjustments, and contract administration. But unlike union members, non-members can avoid supporting a union's ideological activities including political lobbying or public relations campaigns
"This is a case about teachers' fundamental, constitutional rights," said Mark Fischer, Dame's attorney. "Why should a teacher who decides to resign in, say, September be forced to underwrite union political and social spending he disagrees with until the following August?"
MEA officials argue that no statute forbids them from limiting the time members can resign, and courts have found no constitutional right for public employees to resign union membership at will. The one-month resignation policy, they argue, is consistent with the union's right to make rules regarding its members and is necessary to avoid the administrative burdens of allowing members to resign at any time.
A favorable ruling for Dame means that the MEA will have to accept member resignations at any time.