Leaving union proves challenging

As she completed her first year in the classroom, Ottawa County kindergarten teacher Miriam Chanski decided she could do without a union. She thought passage of right-to-work legislation last December ensured that choice.

The Coopersville Public Schools teacher filled out a form in May for electronic union dues deduction with a note at the top: “I choose to opt out of the union for the 2013-14 school year.”

But in September, she learned she had missed her chance. She was told that union bylaws required her to opt out in August.

“I never heard of that date. I believe they were actively hiding this information from the members,” Chanski said.

Chanski said she also was told she would be turned over to a collection agency if did she not pay her dues.

In October, Chanski, 24, joined an unfair labor practice lawsuit filed by the legal arm of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based conservative think tank. It represents six other public school teachers and a paraprofessional, claiming the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, bullied them into paying dues and concealed information about their options for opting out of the union.

The MEA said the suit is without merit. MEA spokesman Doug Pratt said the August opt-out provision has been in membership contracts for 40 years.

But there is clearly more at stake than the fate of eight educators who want to leave a teachers union.

Public sector unions have been the lone bright spot for organized labor in Michigan in recent decades. They represented 57 percent of workers in 1983 and 52 percent in 2011. By contrast, the percentage of unionized manufacturing workers declined from 46 percent to 20 percent over the same period.

Thus far, the impact of right-to-work on the MEA appears minimal. Pratt said that approximately 1,500 members – about 1 percent of its active and retired membership of 150,000 – used the August window to opt out of the union.

But if right-to-work opens the door to greater defections, it could spell trouble both for the union and its chief political beneficiary, the Michigan Democratic Party. The MEA has lost 12,000 members in the last seven years. Its favored candidate in the 2010 gubernatorial election – Democrat Virge Bernero - lost in a landslide. It spent $2.7 million backing a constitutional amendment in 2012 that would have guaranteed collective bargaining, only to see it fail, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Its defeat galvanized supporters of right to work. Gov. Rick Snyder called the failed constitutional measure “a massive overreach” and said it prompted his decision to back right to work.

Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics, a Lansing-based political analysis website, said right-to-work is by no means good news for an organization that has seen its clout diminished in recent years. “How big a blow is this? I think we are going to have to wait and see.”

But noting recent events in Wisconsin, he said things could be worse.

Public sector union membership in Wisconsin plummeted following passage in 2011 of legislation that stripped public sector unions of most of their collective bargaining power. Since then, the state's primary teacher's union has reportedly lost half of its 98,000 dues-paying members. The executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees union said it lost more than half of its members.

MEA spokesman Pratt declined to predict what might happen in Michigan during the next opt-out window.

“Of course, there are going to be more people that are going to leave. We are not going to put any numbers on it,” Pratt said.

“The vast majority of members have chosen to stay because they believe in the MEA. The MEA has been around for 160 years and it will be around for 160 more.”

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Tue, 12/10/2013 - 9:12am
The Mackinac Center's goal is to make Michigan a union free state.They have no interest in Ms. Chanski, and are more than willing to use her to achieve their goal. It is sad that people like Ms. Chanski, an educator no less!, have so little understanding of what life was like for teachers, factory workers, etc prior to the rise of collective bargaining. If the Mackinac Center succeeds, the next contract Coopersville offers Ms. Chanski will be "take it or leave it, no questions asked". Unions aren't perfect, but they sure beat the alternative.
Tue, 12/10/2013 - 10:46am
Unions have been strong-arming people (including their own members) for decades. This case shows the deceit they will practice just to hang on to those precious dues to fill the union leaders' pockets and the campaign pockets of their liberal politician (synonym: democrat) friends. Ms. Chanski has a very strong case and should win.
Tue, 12/10/2013 - 1:34pm
David you are right on and in particular about the Mackinac Center using good people like Ms. Chanski to move their agenda. What many people don't know is that when an individual chooses to work in a public school in Michigan, they have identified an organization that has benefited greatly through union negotiations for work conditions, health benefits and wages. When these same people decide to withdrawl from the union they no longer are paying their fair share in order to maintain those benefits and leave the financial burden to their colleagues. Imagine that work environment. Maybe these people should choose a private of charter school for their employment, wonder why not? If right- to work (freeload) was the way to go, why did the Michigan legislators have to lock the public out of the Capitol while they passed this legislation. It seems that creating turmoil is a goal in Lansing that they (Michigan legislators) have yet to disclose.
Tue, 12/10/2013 - 2:51pm
What people need to consider is that when individuals choose a public school district in Michigan for employment, they have selected an organization that has benefited from the MEA or AFT in the salary, benefits and work conditions that they enjoy. When those same people decide to quit the union, they are leaving the financial burden of those bargained benefits to their colleagues while they maintain nearly all of the benefits themselves. Most intelligent and hard working people consider this freeloading. Not wanting to be a part of a union is a personal choice but expecting the benefits of the union while others pay your way is a different story that speaks for itself. There are plenty of charter schools popping up out there for teaching jobs if an individual truly does not want to be a part of a union. Why didn't they choose one of those? Wonder why those jobs are continually overturning, year after year after year...
Wed, 12/11/2013 - 2:10pm
This is just a distraction tactic. It seems that an educator would know the rules and follow them. I bet she could have read about the procedure in her union contract. It's a shame she doesn't realize the benefits and work conditions she enjoys now are from the hard work of her predecessors.
A former counselor
Sun, 12/15/2013 - 10:30am
The MEA has a purpose. But as a school counselor who paid union dues for nine years, yet the MEA did not do one thing to assist me regarding the loss of my job. Michigan School Counselors were unable to obtain tenure in Michigan. I don't know if that has changed or not. The MEA was always insistent that school counselors should not obtain tenure status. So, I lost my job to a tenured teacher with four years of experience. How is that fair? I worked for most of most career in the corporate sector, and I never had a union!