Amid Political Pressure, Michigan Teachers’ Union Loses Member Opt-Out Case
Facing a series of political setbacks in recent years, the Michigan Education Association last week lost a case regarding the one-month window when union members can drop out. A judge ruled that members should be allowed to quit throughout the year.
After a court ruling last week interpreting the state’s right-to-work provisions, Michigan’s largest teachers’ union will have to change its member-retention tactics.
The Michigan Education Association lost an administrative court case focused on a longstanding rule that allowed members of the union to resign only during an August opt-out period every year. Administrative law judge Julia Stern sided with seven teachers who challenged the rule, finding that it violated a 2012 amendment to the state’s public employment law stipulating that payment of union dues cannot be a requirement of employment. The ruling must be approved by the state’s Republican-controlled Employment Relations Commission.
While Stern said she understood MEA’s reasoning for the opt-out window—in particular, the union’s need for a stable membership count for budgeting purposes—she held that the policy could not be maintained under the state’s new right-to-work rules.
The conservative Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which brought the challenge on behalf of the teachers, cheered the decision. “Judge Stern’s ruling goes along with our belief that teachers are professionals and not piggy banks for the MEA,” Patrick Wright, director of the foundation, told The Associated Press.
MEA did score some small victories in the case: Stern ruled that the union did not violate state law by sending collection letters for unpaid dues and that the union was not legally required to publicize the new rules.
The union said it plans to appeal and held out hope that the commission would overturn the decision. It also was optimistic about Stern’s recognition of the organizational need for a membership window.
“There are numerous reasons why the August window makes the MEA a more efficient organization and advocate for its membership as a whole, and [Stern] agreed with the MEA’s rationale for the window,” MEA General Counsel Michael Shoudy said in a statement.
Anti-Union Pressure Rises
The ruling comes at a time when MEA is under significant political pressure, as state leadership has become less friendly to unions in recent years.
Beyond the right-to-work law, a separate law was passed last year that blocked the MEA from taking teacher dues directly out of paychecks. While roughly 8,000 members stopped paying as a result of the change, MEA said last month that many of those who had stopped paying dues eventually began paying again.
In the weeks before the court decision, union opponents launched a campaign to convince members to leave the association during August. Roughly 5,000 of the 110,000 members quit—an number that MEA President Steven Cook saw as a victory.
“Despite a relentless campaign by outside forces determined to discredit and destroy the MEA, more than 95 percent of our members stayed,” Cook said in a statement.