News Story

Court Says Union's Anti-Right-To-Work Deal 'Hostile' to Teachers

Pursuit of 'own financial advantage' was 'reckless and indifferent' to school employees

The Michigan Court of Appeals held this week that the Taylor public school district was motivated by “hostility” when it signed a so-called “union security clause” agreement, which required employees to pay union dues for another 10 years in spite of Michigan's new right-to-work law. The law prohibits employers from making workers pay union dues as a condition of employment.

The court majority had strong words also for the teachers union local. The union, the court said, “took deliberate action, in entering into the union security agreement to its own financial advantage, that would essentially subvert and undermine the plain language and intent of state law in a manner that was reckless and indifferent to the interests of persons to whom it owned a duty of fair representation.”

The opinion was released Tuesday, but was, in the words of the legal profession, “unpublished,” meaning it does not establish a precedent lower courts must follow.

Michigan’s right-to-work law was enacted in December 2012, but it only applies to union contracts signed after it went into effect on March 28, 2013. Taylor is one of a number of school districts that in the days before right-to-work went into effect entered into union contracts requiring compulsory dues payments for years into the future.

Angela Steffke, Rebecca Metz and Nancy Rhatigan, teachers in the district, challenged the deal in Wayne County Circuit Court in February 2013. The case was referred to a quasi-judicial state agency called the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, which has jurisdiction over certain union matters involving government employees. The commission later ruled in favor the teachers.

The appeals court characterized the district and union’s actions as hostile toward the teachers. The court noted that “contemporaneously” with the now-void union security agreement, the union accepted a 10 percent pay cut and dropped some unfair labor practice charges against the school district. The union implied it gave up some things for this now-void security agreement.

“We conclude that MERC did not clearly err in finding that such evidence had been presented in this case. The school district not only executed the union security agreement on the eve of the effective date of legislation that dramatically altered labor relations in Michigan and made such union security agreements unlawful, but it did so after that legislation had been passed by both houses of the Michigan Legislature and signed by Michigan’s Governor,” the court’s opinion said.

“Under such circumstances, it is a reasonable inference that the school district acted with hostility toward the charging parties’ right to refrain from financially supporting a labor organization, and that this hostility was a motivating factor in its entry into a 10-year union security agreement that purported to eliminate the exercise of this right by the charging parties for a full decade following its statutory enactment,” the opinion continued.

“Further, at the time of its attempted enforcement of the union security agreement, the school district was definitively aware that the charging parties then possessed the statutory right not to financially support the union,” wrote the court.

Mark Cousens, the attorney that represented the school district and the Taylor Federation of Teachers, didn't respond to an email seeking comment.

Derk Wilcox, senior attorney for the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which represented the plaintiffs in the case, said the Taylor union put its financial well-being above that of teachers.

“The union and the school district clearly placed the union's financial interests above the rights of the teachers,” he said. “The union threatened to fire any teacher who didn’t agree to put the union’s financial interests ahead of the teachers’ own financial interests or consciences.”

“The Court of Appeals agreed with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission that the union and school knew what they were doing when it deprived teachers of their rights and forced them to pay dues or fees to the union for ten years after right-to-work became the law of the land,” Wilcox concluded.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.