Teachers should know their rights

Every year, tens of thousands of Michigan public school teachers are forced to surrender a substantial portion of their paychecks to the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and its parent union, the National Education Association (NEA). Some of this money goes to legitimate employee representation duties, including contract negotiation and grievance processing. But a large amount of members' dues dollars is spent on union lobbying, political campaigns, and the promotion of controversial social causes.

What can teachers do if they disagree with the NEA and MEA's moral, political, and social agendasor if they just want to keep more of their own money?

Fortunately for such public school employees, there are legal rights available to them in these compulsory union situations. Many are unaware of these rights because union leaders all too often fail to notify members of their legal options. But these rights, established by U.S. Supreme Court decisions, are the law of the land regardless of what a collective bargaining agreement says or what individual teachers might otherwise be told.

All teachers and other public school employees have the right to:

· Join or not join a workplace union. Membership in a union is optional, and teachers cannot legally be compelled to join at any time.

· Resign membership in a union. Some unions, like the MEA, attempt to place restrictions on how and when they will accept member resignations. This practice has been declared illegal by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission in a recent case involving an MEA member. Consequently, union members in similar situations may be able to resign at any time.

· Eliminate financial support for a workplace union's non-representation activities. Teachers who refuse to join their workplace union or who resign their membership are legally obligated to pay only those dues or fees necessary to cover the expenses of essential union representation duties such as collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance processing. All other portions of union dues, including those that go to political, social, and ideological causes, are not legally chargeable to nonunion teachers who object to funding these activities.

· Receive a full explanation of any and all fees charged by a workplace union. Public-sector unions must provide nonmember employees with an explanation of any fees charged, an independent accountant's verification of the fees, and an explanation of the procedures under which the nonunion employees can challenge the union fees before a neutral third party.

· Challenge a workplace union's fee assessments. Nonunion employees have the right to challenge the amount their union charges them before an impartial decision-maker, to receive proper notice and information of this right, and to have the disputed fees escrowed until the challenge is resolved.

How do teachers or other public school employees exercise these rights? First, they must resign their union membership and state their objections to funding superfluous union activities in writing. The union is then required to explain what an employee must continue to pay for its representation services only, and how it calculated this amount. Employees have a period of time in which they can reconsider and continue to pay full union dues, or resign to take advantage of the reduced union fee.

Teachers and other public school employees should of course weigh carefully their decision to join or remain in a union, as there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to either choice. As nonmembers, employees pay a reduced fee, are not subject to union discipline or fines, and are legally entitled to the same representation services as union members. Likewise, nonmembers enjoy all of the benefits of the union's collective bargaining agreement with the employer. Nonmembers may, however, be denied member rights including the ability to attend union meetings; ratify or reject collective bargaining agreements; vote in union elections, and receive any financial benefits provided by the union, such as a union credit card, discounted auto insurance rates, and so on.

But even as nonunion members, employees still enjoy workplace protections under Michigan's Public Employee Relations Act (PERA) without joining a union. The law protects employees who engage in lawful concerted activities with other employees for the purposes of collective negotiation, bargaining, or other mutual aid and protection, even if no union represents the employees.

As we enter a new century, it is important to recognize that the confrontational 19th-century factory model of labor relations—with its legalized compulsion funded by forced dues—is not necessarily the best model for our schools. After all, schools are not factories, teachers are not assembly line workers, and students are not widgets. The current rigid and standardized approach to employee representation only discourages innovation and creativity at a time when citizens and teachers are struggling to find solutions to improve education for all Michigan children.

Educators are professionals and should expect to be treated as such. Perhaps when more teachers and other public school employees take advantage of their rights, unions will be more inclined to abandon their old ways and embrace professionalism instead of molding teachers into rank-and-file factory workers.

For more information on public school employees' rights, visit www.mackinac.org.