Mackinac Center Legal Foundation

Fighting For a Teacher’s Right to Work

Four years after Michigan passed right-to-work and three contract agreements later, it’s time the Michigan Education Association and all its local affiliates to admit that right-to-work applies to teachers, too. That’s why the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is helping Ann Arbor science teacher Ronald Robinson in his fight to exercise his freedom under right-to-work to opt out of union membership.

The Issue

In May, the Mackinac Center began representing Robinson, who filed an unfair labor charge with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission against the MEA. The union and its local affiliate had demanded he pay agency fees, despite the fact he notified them he was opting out.

“Teachers aren’t just ATMs for union officials,” said Mackinac Center Senior Attorney Derk Wilcox.

Robinson, a 24-year teaching veteran, said he opted out of union membership because he believes the union fails to negotiate higher pay and benefits for members, protects bad teachers and is slow to respond to member grievances. He notified the union in writing of his resignation during the MEA’s own “August window,” the month of the year the union had claimed was the only time members could resign. (A state agency overseeing labor law has since ruled that the union must accept resignations any time of the year.) Still, the union refuses to acknowledge his freedom under right-to-work. Robinson feared he’d be turned over to a collection agency and see his credit destroyed.

“The MEA paid its collection agency over $152,500 last year,” Robinson said. “How many teachers’ credit scores have they destroyed?”

Michigan passed right-to-work in December 2012 and the law went into effect March 28, 2013, but stipulated that it would not affect existing collective bargaining agreements. The law said employees would gain the freedom to work once a contract is extended or renewed after that date.

Days before the law went into effect, the Ann Arbor Education Association (AAEA) and Ann Arbor Public Schools extended the existing union security agreement until 2016. But the union and district had revised the collective bargaining agreement in 2014 and in 2015, terminating the agreement and renegotiating a new one. The law clearly states that “[A]n agreement, contract, understanding, or practice that takes effect or is extended or renewed after March 28, 2013” is subject to right-to-work. Despite this clear wording, the MEA and AAEA are trying to force nonmember teachers to pay fees.

“A union cannot change almost everything in a contract and claim the agreement is not a new one that is exempt from right-to-work,” Wilcox said.

An administrative law judge has issued a recommendation to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission encouraging it to find in favor of Robinson, who the judge said has the right to leave the union. The judge also questioned the enforceability of union contracts signed between the time right-to-work legislation was signed and took effect.