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Topics: Labor Unions

Michigan union backs down, allows members to use right-to-work law

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Michigan,Right to work

More than a year after it was signed by the governor, the Michigan Education Association has agreed to allow its members William "Ray" Arthur and Miriam Chanski to take advantage of the state's right-to-work law and quit the the union.

MEA had previously refused to accept their resignations, forcing the two teachers to file charges with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. But on Thursday, MEA dropped its objections to Arthur and Chanski leaving, reported the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which was representing the two.

"I am very happy with the outcome and the work that the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation and (center lawyer) Patrick Wright did in bringing the proper attention to my case and in following through," Arthur said. "I'm grateful for his help and looking forward to getting the word out to other members who need help along the same lines."

The center is still representing five other teachers who have similar cases pending before MERC.

MEA, the state branch of the National Education Association, did not respond to a request for comment. In a March 3 press release, it said the Center's claims were "without merit."

Big Labor typically insists on contracts with management that require all workers to either belong to the union or at least pay dues to it. Right-to-work laws prohibit this practice, allowing the workers to decide for themselves if they want to belong. Unions like MEA staunchly oppose the laws because they cause them to lose members, reducing the amount of dues it takes in.

After Michigan adopted a right-to-work law in late 2012, MEA only allowed members to opt out during the month of August, which is -- probably not coincidentally -- when school is out and many teachers are on vacation. Members who wished to leave but missed filing papers during that time period were told by the union they had to pay another year's worth of dues. The union said it would turn them over to a collection agency if they didn't. Applications sent in earlier than August were not accepted.

MEA rejected Arthur and Chanski's efforts in 2013, saying the requests came in too late. The teachers alleged the union never alerted them to the one-month window in the first place. "They only tell you about the window if you inquire," Arthur told the Washington Examiner last year. "They said they were not legally required to tell us about the opt-out window."

In testimony before a Michigan Senate committee last year regarding right to work, MEA spokesman Doug Pratt asked bluntly: "Why would any membership organization seek to tell someone how to get out?"

Union officials were unabashed about the strong-arm tactics. Pratt told the Examiner last year that the union was owed money by the would-be ex-members -- and that it would collect: "MEA believes in the sanctity of contracts — whether they are with a school district or an individual — and the democratic process."

It is not clear how many teachers are being prevented from using their rights under the right-to-work law. Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook claimed in October 2013 that his union had retained 99 percent of its reported 112,000 active members in the first year since the law passed. But earlier this month, MEA Executive Director Gretchen Dziadosz said 8,000 of its members were not paying dues. That suggests that many intended to opt out but were stymied by the union's rules.

"We think many of the teachers are gritting their teeth and waiting for next year" to opt out, Mackinac's Wright said.

Workers in Indiana encountered similar problems after that state passed a right-to-work law.

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