Miriam Chanski is suing the MEA over its limited August window to leave the union. (The Mackinac Center)
Miriam Chanski is young and enthusiastic, and she’s the kind of teacher Michigan needs to preserve. Unfortunately, she’s not feeling much love from her union. In fact, she feels she’s been pushed around.
The second-year kindergarten teacher decided to exercise her rights under Michigan’s new right-to-work law this summer but encountered a runaround from the state’s largest teachers union, which effectively attempted to trap her into paying dues for another school year.
Chanski, 24, doesn’t think that’s fair. So she has filed a complaint regarding the Michigan Education Association’s limited August window to leave the union. Six other teachers have joined her, and Chanski asked the Mackinac Center’s Legal Foundation—which has received similar complaints from dozens of other MEA members—to represent her.
In May, Chanski says a union representative stopped by her Coopersville school, requesting she write her credit card number or bank account information on a piece of paper. The electronic dues form became necessary this spring when a Michigan law that bans schools from automatically collecting union dues from paychecks was upheld. But Chanski wasn’t eager to give out that kind of personal information.
“I didn’t feel comfortable,” she says. So she wrote on the top of the form that she would like to opt out of the union. She was aware of right to work. “I was already thinking about it,” she says of leaving the union.
In July, Chanski got a letter from the local union Uniserv director, acknowledging that she wanted to leave the union. The letter also said there was more to the process, but didn’t offer any additional information—or say anything about the August window. “No timeframe was given,” Chanski says.
Chanski tried to get in touch with the Uniserv director but was never able to connect with her. “I never heard from her again,” Chanski says. She assumed she was out of the union for this current school year. Plus, she had paid her dues, as agreed, through the 2012-13 school year.
But then in September, the local union president informed Chanski that she was still in the union because she hadn’t officially left in August. “Where is this August coming from?” Chanski remembers thinking. “In my mind, I’d opted out.”
Confused, Chanski called a MEA helpline, and a representative told her if she didn’t pay her dues through the next school year, her information would be turned over to credit collectors. “It’s just like a credit card,” the representative told Chanski, saying her credit could be negatively impacted if she didn’t pay. For a young woman, who still has plenty of big purchases ahead, that was an unwelcome revelation.
MEA spokesman Doug Pratt argues in the “vast majority” of situations, members who wanted out were provided with the information they needed. And MEA President Steve Cook recently bragged 99 percent of teachers chose to stay with the union this year. Of course, only around 15 percent of school districts had contracts expire so far after right to work took effect.
Chanski is filing her suit with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. The state agency upheld the limited window about a decade ago, when teachers could use that time to move from paying full union dues to agency fees. Now, given right to work, the commission should find that more difficult to defend.
As Chanski says, she would hope a union would prefer members who want to be a part of the organization. And bullying is something teachers are supposed to prevent—not engage in.