According to the MEA, about 1,500 members are no longer dues-paying members of the union or paying a fee to service the cost of a maintaining their local collective bargaining agreement. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Lansing — The president of the Michigan Education Association says about 1 percent of its 150,000 members have exercised their new right not to support financially the state’s largest teachers union.
Michigan’s six-month-old right-to-work law makes financial support of a labor union optional.
MEA President Steve Cook said Friday about 1,500 members are no longer dues-paying members of the union or paying a fee to service the cost of maintaining their local collective bargaining agreement.
“Ninety-nine percent of the members who could have either become freeloaders or fee-payers chose to stay with the Michigan Education Association,” Cook said Friday during a taping of WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record.”
The union hasn’t gotten a complete picture of how its membership and finances may fluctuate under the new law because some contracts were extended prior to the law taking effect in March, meaning some teachers still have to pay a so-called “fair share” fee to the union.
“This is round one,” Cook said on the Lansing-based public television political talk show. “So next year, we’re going to be right back in the soup again trying to retain those members. It’s going to be an every year sort of thing, but I think we’re up to the challenge.”
One watchdog of the teachers union expressed skepticism Friday about the accuracy of Cook’s statement that 1 percent of MEA members have left the union.
Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank that advocated for passage of a right-to-work law, said she talked to a teacher this week who didn’t know she could only opt out of the MEA inAugust only.
According to the Mackinac Center, which tracks union contracts, 90 MEA contracts expired in August, meaning teachers in those districts also may not have had the option to stop paying union dues or fees, Spalding said.
The Mackinac Center says 145 school districts agreed to extend 260 collective bargaining agreements before the right-to-work law took effect, exempting those contracts from the law’s ban on “union security” clauses that make financial support of a union a condition of employment.
“It’s not necessarily that people don’t want to leave the union, but people are trapped by extended contracts and are not being informed of their choices,” Spalding said. “To say 1 percent left, and imply that everyone else had the option, isn’t accurate.”
MEA spokesman Doug Pratt said Friday the 1 percent loss is across all 1,108 of its local unions, regardless of the status of their contract.
No ballot issue next year
During the TV interview, Cook also said the teachers union has “no intention” of pursuing a 2014 ballot initiative asking voters to get rid of the right-to-work law.
After suffering a defeat in 2012 on a collective bargaining ballot initiative, Cook said another ballot proposal would divert financial resources away from helping Democratic candidates win statewide offices, seats in the Legislature and change the makeup of the the Michigan Supreme Court.
“There’s a lot at risk in 2014, so you have to ask yourself: Do you want a bunch of ballot issues on the ballot at the same time?” Cook said. “Our opinion is it tends to take your eye off of the ball.”
Earlier this week, the MEA formally endorsed former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer’s bid to defeat Republican Gov. Rick Snyder next year. Cook didn’t rule out going back to the ballot in 2016.
“For now, I think, we’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Cook said.
The powerful labor leader also acknowledged he’s never met Michigan’s governor, but said he remains angry with Snyder for signing the right-to-work law after repeatedly saying it wasn’t on his agenda.
“We haven’t forgiven Snyder,” Cook said.
Costly dues collections
Under MEA contracts, most teachers and educational support staff in school districts across the state had the option to drop their membership in August, Cook said.
MEA dues are 1.5 percent of salary up to $42,000, capped at $640 annually, according to the union.
Cook credited the MEA’s statewide network of staff and local union leaders helping retain most of the membership while another law went into effect barring school districts from deducting union dues from the paychecks of unionized employees.
“That has been hugely expensive for us, because now we’re into paying credit card fees and that sort of thing just to collect the dues,” Cook said. “It’s taken our focus off other things we would have rather been doing, dealing with legislation and the other stuff we normally do.”