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.”