Victory for Taylor Teachers Paves Way for Others

Nancy Rhatigan, Rebecca Metz and Angela Steffke

The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but they can reach their destination. After four years of litigation, the case of three teachers in Taylor has successfully reached its conclusion at the Michigan Supreme Court. The court rejected the last attempt at an appeal by the Taylor Federation of Teachers and the Taylor School District, thereby upholding the teachers’ victory.

Way back in 2013, we first heard from three teachers — Angela Steffke, Rebecca Metz and Nancy Rhatigan — in the Taylor School District. They told us of a strange set of contracts being negotiated between their district and the union. As a way to avoid implementing right-to-work and denying teachers the ability to exercise their right to avoid paying the union, the union’s lawyer was drafting two collective bargaining agreements. One contained most of the terms of employment, while another contained a clause that would prohibit right-to-work — for 10 years. The unusual structure of this second agreement was unprecedented, and its length created a number of unique legal challenges.

Just as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy played the lead role in promoting right-to-work in Michigan, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation played the lead role in protecting the employees’ rights secured by the law. According to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, the Taylor case was where “the Commission first examined the effects of [right-to-work] on the rights of public employees to refrain from financially supporting a labor organization.” In their discussion of the case, the commissioners wrote that Taylor was the occasion when “the Commission issued its first decision on the question of the lawfulness of union security agreements made after the enactment of [right-to-work].”

The Taylor case wasn’t just the first to defend right-to-work. It was the first to conclusively find that public employees have the right to challenge the collective bargaining agreement that binds them. The unions had contended that employees had no right to mount a legal challenge to a contract made on their behalf. Now, as an administrative law judge recounts, “In their Taylor decision, the Commission majority concluded that the [teachers] in that case were third party beneficiaries of the contract and that, as such, they had standing to challenge all aspects of the agreement.” This conclusion will benefit public employees who challenge the unions’ actions from here on out.

And the Taylor teachers’ favorable decision in the courts has already reached beyond these three teachers and their employer. The Court of Appeals decision in Taylor was cited and followed in legal victories by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation for another teacher, Ronald Robinson of Ann Arbor. And it was also cited and followed in victories for other Ann Arbor teachers, Jeffrey Finnan and Cory Merante, who were represented by Legal Foundation allies at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. In writing about Finnan and Merante, the administrative law judge stated, “Similarly, the [union] here, like [the union in] Taylor, recognized the intent of the legislature’s actions in enacting [right-to-work] and took steps that resulted in the attempted subversion and undermining of that intent.”

The Taylor decision also helped a teacher in the Clarkston Community Schools, Ron Conwell, who was also represented by the national foundation. The Taylor decision was not only the deciding factor in the Clarkson case, but it put the union on notice to such a degree that it was fined for not complying with the law. MERC stated in its Clarkston opinion, “[The Taylor] decision was issued prior to [the teacher’s] resignation from the Unions on August 20, 2015. Therefore, by checking applicable case law, [the union] could have determined from a review of our decision in Taylor that a union security clause entered into after the enactment of [right-to-work], though before its effective date, was likely to be found to be unlawful. A review of that decision would have put [the union] on notice of the probably unlawfulness of their actions before they sent the August 31, 2015 letter to [the teacher] instructing him to pay a service fee to the Unions.” For that reason, it fined the Clarkston Education Association and the Michigan Education Association $500, payable to the state government.

The Taylor case stands out as an example for how people affected by a bad public policy can step forward and, with the help of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, challenge it in the courts. It took years to complete but it had far-reaching effects that extend beyond Steffke, Metz and Rhatigan, who took the first courageous step.