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.
CASE UPDATE: The agency fee provision was held to be illegal.
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.
The Michigan Employees Relations Commission agreed with Wilcox’s assessment.
On April 17, 2018, Robinson won the fight against the MEA and the AAEA. The MERC found that since Robinson ended his membership, he had no further obligation to pay union dues. In its decision, MERC declared that the union’s attempts to demand payment from Robinson for the 2015-2016 school year were unlawful.
An administrative law judge issued a recommendation affirming Robinson’s right to leave his union, raising questions about the enforceability of union contracts throughout Michigan that hold workers hostage. After citing a ruling in another Mackinac Center case, the judge found that union security agreements entered into between the time right-to-work was signed and when it took effect are not enforceable.
“This is a step to provide greater freedom for public employees,” said Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation. “The unions have engaged in many attempts to limit worker freedom and we have done our best to challenge them all. Right-to-work passed five years ago and we hope we are rapidly approaching the time where all Michigan public employees will be able to exercise their rights under it without union interference.”