Fighting to Make Right-to-Work Effective

Joshua Khon teaches art at Armada Middle School and Armada High School.

On Dec. 12, 2017, almost five years to the day that the Michigan Legislature passed right-to-work, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of another Michigan teacher who still was not allowed the freedoms guaranteed by that law.

The suit was filed in the quasi-judicial public body known as the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. Joshua Khon is an arts teacher at Armada Middle School and Armada High School. In 2012, he resigned from the Armada Education Association, the union representing his bargaining unit. The association, MEA-NEA Local 1, is an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association. Khon decided that he did not agree with all the stances the union took or how it spent his dues. Since then, he has been a “service fee” payer, which means that although he is not a member of the union, he is still forced to accept its representation as part of a bargaining unit. Furthermore, he has to pay for that representation — about 75 percent of what full membership dues would cost. The union local claims that he still has to pay this service fee, despite Michigan’s right-to-work law, because of an unusually long and strangely structured agreement made between the union and the school district.

On March 6, 2013, the Armada school district and Armada Education Association entered into a tentative collective bargaining agreement. That was nearly three months after the state’s right-to-work law was enacted on Dec. 11, 2012, and a little more than three weeks before it became effective on March 28, 2013. Most terms of the agreement were to be in effect from 2013-2016. The union and district came to a second agreement, one that required a person in the bargaining unit to pay dues (if a union member) or a service fee (if not a member). This second agreement was to last 10 years, expiring Aug. 31, 2023.

The Armada Board of Education ratified the three-year general agreement on March 19, 2013. But the letter of agreement for the ten-year union security agreement was not ratified by the board president until Aug. 20, 2013 — well after the effective date of the right-to-work law.

Then, on March 16, 2016, the Armada school district signed a new five-year collective bargaining agreement. Under the right-to-work law, a new agreement should trigger the application of that law to any district, including Armada. The structure of the statute is such that its application could not be avoided by simply revising or renewing existing agreements. The Mackinac Center contends that the letter of agreement was invalid when it was made because it wasn’t ratified until well after right-to-work went into effect. And even if it were effective when it was made, the new collective bargaining agreement in 2016 would mean that right-to-work should apply to Khon’s situation.

Moreover, the two-contract structure, with one contract being unreasonably long at ten years, was created to cheat teachers out of their rights. The Michigan Court of Appeals found such a scheme invalid in a case brought by the Center, Taylor School District v Steffke, 318 Mich App 617 (2017). The employment commission subsequently relied on Steffke in another case, Clarkston Community Schools and CEA v. Conwell, in which it found the district and union had committed illegal unfair labor practices. If the commission follows and applies those cases to Armada, its 10-year security agreement is void and unenforceable.

After five years, you would think that the MEA would have accepted the law and not continued to deny teachers their rights. Yet the union keeps placing its financial position ahead of the teachers’ rights and desires. Since the enactment of right-to-work, the MEA has lost approximately 25 percent of its members. While several factors are behind that decline, it’s clear that many teachers, such as Joshua Khon, simply don’t think the union represents them well or provides value for their money.