For years, Michigan public school educators did not have a choice. If they wanted to teach, they had to be a member of the Michigan Education Association, or at least pay a fee to it. That changed in March, when the Wolverine State adopted a right-to-work law barring such employment contracts. Teachers could now opt out of the union if they desired.
Except that it isn't as easy as saying "I quit." MEA, the state branch of the National Education Association, only allows members to do so one month out of the year and strictly enforces this rule. Miss it — even by a little — and not only are you still a member, but you owe another year's worth of dues, too.
About 300 MEA members had their applications to leave rejected in 2013 because they came in too late. That's according to testimony given by Doug Pratt, MEA's director of member benefits, during a Dec. 4 hearing held by the Michigan State Senate's Compliance and Accountability Committee. The hearing documents included MEA's rejection form letter. It is an interesting document that says a lot about the union's priorities.
The form letter begins by acknowledging the member's request to leave, stating: "Membership in your local/MEA/NEA has always been on a voluntary basis ... we respect your right to resign from the Association in the manner authorized by MEA governance documents and the membership agreement you signed upon joining."
It goes on to state that the membership agreement "forms a contract between you and the association, wherein we provide services in exchange for payment of dues. Enforcement of contracts is at the core of who we are as an organization." (Emphasis added.)
These contracts, MEA notes, renew automatically, with August the only month members are allowed to opt out, which was bad luck for those members who submitted their requests late:
"Your message was postmarked after the August 31 deadline ... and therefore your membership automatically renewed for the 2013-14 school year. While we understand this is not the message you want to hear from us, it is nonetheless, consistent with the rules adopted by the MEA Representative Assembly, the body elected by members to govern the organization. As you will continue to have a dues obligation to MEA for the coming year, MEA wants to make every effort to show you the value of your dues dollars and work to earn your membership going forward."
Several Michigan teachers have complained they were never told about the August opt-out window in the first place.
As MEA's Pratt noted in his testimony: "The fact is membership organizations like ours don't market how to quit — they market why you should stay."