Final Victory for the Taylor Teachers?

When Angela Steffke, Nancy Rhatigan and Rebecca Metz were denied their right-to-work freedoms in February 2013, they did not know how long they would be denied that right. The Taylor School District and the Taylor Federation of Teachers collaborated to force them to pay union dues or fees until 2023. If the three teachers didn’t pay, they could be fired at the union’s discretion.

Now their lengthy legal battle may be at an end after the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the district and union had made a deliberate and impermissible attempt to deny them their rights.

The union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, together with the district, had maintained that a 10-year union security agreement was valid. They said that even though the agreement denied teachers their rights, it was valid because it was made after the right-to-work law was enacted, but before it took effect. But the courts agreed with the teachers that it was invalid when it was made. They said the union and district tried to deny teachers their rights for too long and the agreement was therefore excessive and unreasonable.

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation has represented the teachers from day one. After they secured a victory at the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, the union and the school district appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals. On Dec. 13, 2016, the court of appeals upheld the teachers’ prior victory. 

The court said the employment commission was correct in finding that the union and the district were “attempting to nullify a state law for ten years.” They had, it said, interfered with the ability of the employees to exercise their rights. It added that the union security agreement could be “fairly characterized as interfering with, restraining, or coercing public employees in the exercise of their right . . . to choose not to support a labor organization.” The teachers, the court said, were “coerced into financially supporting the union.” Furthermore, it said, “It is a reasonable inference that the school district acted with hostility toward” the teachers. 

The court said it was reasonable for the commission “to conclude that the union took deliberate action, in entering into the union security agreement to its own financial advantage, that would essentially subvert and undermine the plain language and intent of state law in a manner that was reckless and indifferent to the interests of persons to whom it owed a duty of fair representation.” It agreed that the union “acted to sustain and protect itself financially, and that it had not acted in accordance with its fiduciary duty.”

The Taylor teachers are waiting to see whether the union and school district will appeal their loss to the Michigan Supreme Court. If they do, it is unlikely that the court will hear the case, as it only hears a very small number on a discretionary basis. In all likelihood, this is the final decision — all the teachers in Taylor are free to leave the union and cannot be forced to pay it anything.