Chris Card: "As a new teacher coming out of college, they just sign you up. No one tells you your options. ... The MEA/NEA signs you up without advising you what your union rights are. They’re railroading you into union membership. I had to do all this research on my own. I did a lot of digging. It wasn’t until last year that I fully understood it."
All employees in a bargaining unit may be represented by a union, but that does not mean that all employees must be members of the union. The famous U.S. Supreme Court cases Abood v. Detroit Board of Education and Chicago Teachers Local 1 v. Hudson both confirm that the U.S. Constitution prohibits such forced membership. In addition, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits membership that conflicts with an employee’s religious beliefs. However, as noted, teachers who refuse to join the union may nevertheless still be required to pay an agency fee to the union for representing their interests in contract negotiations. In Michigan, this fee is substantial, and often constitutes two-thirds or more of the full union membership dues. Recent reports indicate that there are 683 fee-payers in Michigan.
James Gillette: "My experience is that few union members understand any of their rights. When given the information, some have exercised those rights."
Sandra Feeley Myrand: "I believe that teachers do know their rights regarding union membership; they know that they do not have to join as members, but they do have to pay the service fee. For most teachers, the distinction is not significant enough to not join the union. Perhaps the experience of Lakeview teachers is more telling now that there are labor problems. Teachers who are not supporters of the union’s tactics report that they are harassed and bad-mouthed by union leaders and membership. It is very difficult to exist in that kind of hostile environment and resist the union’s directions."
Teachers may decide to resign from union membership, but most unions limit such withdrawal to a "window" period set forth in the collective bargaining agreement, which in Michigan is often the month of August. Such withdrawal windows have been upheld in Michigan as a reasonable administrative requirement. Moreover, in many contracts, the resignation must be done annually, for it will not necessarily carry over from year to year. Employees who are not union members are not subject to union discipline, such as fines. They may be barred, however, from meetings of the union and may not be allowed to vote to ratify the collective bargaining agreement or receive any benefits reserved for union members.
Unions must, as the exclusive bargaining representative under PERA, represent even fee-payers in contractual and grievance issues. Typical grievance language allows any employee to file a grievance, but only the union can force a matter to arbitration. Some fee-payers complain of poor quality representation by the union. A common complaint is that a union representative will take significant steps to make the fee-payer know that the union dislikes the obligation to represent the fee-payer. Nevertheless, should poor representation of a fee-payer be carried to an extreme, the union could inadvertently allow the administration to establish a precedent that could later hurt union members themselves. Fee-payers can be subject to prejudice in matters such as committee appointments.
Even though fee-payers are not union members, it is important to note that they are still covered by PERA. Should the nonunion employee be subjected to threats or discrimination based on a lack of union affiliation, they may seek assistance from MERC. Moreover, PERA specifically provides for direct employer-employee interactions:
"[A]ny individual employee at any time may present grievances to his employer and have the grievances adjusted, without intervention of the bargaining representative, if the adjustment is not inconsistent with the terms of a collective bargaining contract or agreement then in effect, provided that the bargaining representative has been given opportunity to be present at such adjustment."
A teacher’s direct negotiation with an employer over a grievance is not required, but only discretionary. Finally, it should be noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has held in an Ohio case that public employers have an independent duty to inform their employees of the constitutionally protected rights set forth in Hudson. While a similar case has not arisen in Michigan, this case may yet have implications for Michigan public employers. Specifically, it was held that a school board cannot rely on the union to inform the teachers.