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MI Teachers Accuse Union of “deception and intimidation”

On the eve of the Legislature’s Thanksgiving break, three teachers went before a Senate committee to accuse their union of deception and intimidation.

“I just felt I needed to say something because I felt there was something unfair going on,” said Novi special education teacher Susan Bank regarding her unsuccessful effort to stop paying dues under the state’s new right-to-work law to the Michigan Education Association. “People are very intimidated by union goings-on.”

Her testimony at the Nov. 13 meeting came during the first of several right-to-work-related hearings slated for a new committee whose chairman said will explore other issues but is vague about what they will be.

A spokesman for the state’s largest teachers union argues the organization is complying with state law, which allows it to set membership rules. For four decades, the MEA has required members seeking to resign to do so between Aug. 1 and Aug. 31, and the right-to-work law doesn’t change the situation, said Doug Pratt, the union’s public affairs director.

“It says we can have our own policies as to membership,” Pratt said. “The August window has existed for more than 40 years.”

State Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, the Senate’s majority floor leader, said the four-member Senate Compliance and Accountability Committee will look into rights violations resulting from misapplication of new laws.

“Republicans and Democrats have everybody’s civil rights in the backs of their minds,” he said.

Veteran political observer Bill Ballenger called the committee “extremely unusual” in a Capitol where lawmakers normally use temporary committees to explore special issues and permanent committees to craft legislation.

State Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood of Taylor, the lone Democratand vice chairman of the committee, said he suspects “some level of political motivation” for the committee’s formation almost halfway through a two-year legislative session.

Hopgood said his suspicions were aroused when the teachers were joined at the witness table by Mackinac Center Legal Foundation director Patrick Wright. The foundation is an arm of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit think tank that argued for the right-to-work law hurried through the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in December.

The legal foundation said the MEA is using “threats and intimidation” to collect dues from teachers coerced into remaining union members. The 11-month-old law says workers no longer can be compelled to pay union dues or representation fees as a condition of employment.

Two of the three testifying teachers are represented by Wright and the legal foundation in an unfair labor practices complaint lodged against the MEA in October with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.

Bank, the Novi teacher, said she is in her 39th year as a educator and union member, but grew disillusioned with MEA representation.

Bank testified the MEA asked teachers last spring to sign a form allowing union dues to be deducted automatically from bank accounts or charged on credit cards. Under new law, school districts no longer can deduct dues from paychecks.

She said she thought it was clear she wanted out of the MEA when she refused to turn in the dues collection paperwork, but also expected the union to tell her if anything else was necessary.

“The rules are different now,” Bank said, “and yet somehow I was never informed how they had changed.”

Bank testified the MEA never told her she had to file a notice she was dropping union membership during a one-month August resignation “window” that also is being contested.

As a result, local union leaders have implied her credit rating will be harmed if she doesn’t pay dues to the MEA, Bank told the committee.

Miriam Chanski, a kindergarten teacher for the Coopersville School District in Meekhof’s legislative district, said she indicated on her MEA dues withdrawal form in May or June that she planned to leave the union.

Chanski said a union official acknowledged her desire to leave the union in a July letter. Yet, she said, the local union president showed up in her classroom in September and asked whether she had filed a separate withdrawal letter.

“I said I wasn’t aware that was required,” Chanski said. “Then she told me that I had missed the August window.”

“I think it was actively hidden from us,” Chanski testified.

Meekhof said the MEA will get its chance to respond when lawmakers return in December. But the MEA’s Pratt said the teacher and legal foundation complaints are based on misconceptions about the right-to-work law.

Since 1973, an MEA form all teachers receive has stated their union membership is ongoing but they can resign between Aug. 1 and Aug. 31 each year, Pratt said. About 1,500 teachers resigned in August, he said.

Wright testified at the Nov. 13 hearing that the legal foundation sent 30,000 emails about how to resign from the union — a fact Pratt noted to argue the union’s resignation window wasn’t a secret.

About the dues collection effort, Pratt said the MEA believes a contract is a contract.

“The MEA, at our core, believes in the sanctity of contracts,” he said, and it goes for contracts between the union and its members, too.

The Senate panel seems redundant, Pratt added, since the teachers and the legal foundation have the same issues pending before the state Employment Relations Commission.

The commission upheld the MEA’s August resignation period in a May 2004 decision involving West Branch-Rose City teachers.

Wright is arguing the 2004 decision was improper and teachers no longer can be required to stay in unions under membership cards they signed before the December 2012 passage of the right-to-work law.

“We do have every intention of participating in the committee hearings,” Pratt said.
Gary Heinlein, The Detroit News

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