TAYLOR, Mich. – Shortly after Michigan lawmakers passed right-to-work legislation last December, teachers in the Taylor school district were told by their local union president that they had a choice to make:
Approve two new union agreements with the school district, or risk losing their health insurance.
The ultimatum was difficult for teachers because the first agreement, a five-year collective bargaining deal, required them to accept a 10 percent pay cut over the next two years to save Taylor schools $17 million.
The salary reduction was surprising considering that the local teachers union, the Taylor Federation of Teachers, had been at war with the district over salary and other compensation issues for three years.
Suddenly the union was waving the white flag.
The second agreement put the union’s sudden generosity into context. The side document to the union contract – a so-called “union security clause” – would force Taylor schools to continue to deduct union dues and fees from employee paychecks until 2023.
On the surface that security clause was in direct conflict with the state’s new right-to-work law, which freed Michigan workers from having to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.
But the new law didn’t go into effect until March 28, and any labor contracts negotiated before that date are unaffected until they expire.
That gave the Taylor teachers union (and many other unions across the state) time to negotiate or extend contracts that trapped employees into some type of dues payment for many years to come.
At the union’s urging, Taylor teachers approved the agreements by wide margins in February.
Taylor special education teacher Angela Steffke soon realized the agreements weren’t designed to benefit teachers and students, but were a backhanded scheme to circumvent the intent of the right-to-work law.
“Our union president stated that if we did not pass these there would be a payless payday and we would not have medical benefits starting March 1,” said Steffke, who teaches at Kennedy High School. “The ten-year security clause that the union has passed is unfair, and is a direct effort to go around the law.”
Union officials in more than 50 Michigan school districts were able to convince local school boards to extend their contracts to lock in mandatory dues deductions, but the approach in Taylor was different because the separate “security clause” extends beyond the life of the regular collective bargaining agreement.
That distinction prompted legal experts at the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation to take action, and they’re now representing Steffke and two other Taylor teachers in a lawsuit to stop the shady deal.
“In Michigan we have a statute which disallows side agreements that continue on in effect after the collective bargaining agreements expire,” Derk Wilcox, the Foundation’s lead attorney, told the Daily Caller.
“The union is throwing teachers under the proverbial bus with a contract that includes a 10-percent pay cut just to continue padding its coffers,” Wilcox told The News Herald. “Our clients simply don’t want what the union is selling.”
Steffke said it’s obvious the TFT was looking out for its own interests rather than the interests of its members.
“Teachers should have the right to choose,” Steffke said in a Mackinac Center publication. “Taylor teachers went three years without a contract, then Michigan became a right-to-work state and suddenly teachers were presented with an unheard of five-year contract with a 10 percent pay cut and a 10-year security clause for the union.
“This so-called security clause is a misnomer,” she said. “It guarantees nothing for the teachers except that dues will continue to increase.”
Steffke, Kennedy High School English teacher Rebecca Metz, and Truman High School special education teacher Nancy Rhatigan, filed a lawsuit against the Taylor Federation of Teachers, the Taylor Board of Education, and the Taylor school district in Wayne County Circuit Court February 28.
The case centers on Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act, which sets the parameters for union contracts and the “union security clauses” contained within the documents.
The security clauses legally require districts to fire teachers who refuse to pay union dues, or at least an “agency fee” for non-union members that typically equates to about 80 percent of the full dues amount.
In the Taylor lawsuit, attorneys with the Mackinac Center’s Legal Foundation argue that “there is no ability to cleave a bargaining agreement into multiple parts with multiple termination dates.
“There is but one unified agreement with a single end date as indicated by MCL 423.215 of the Public Employment Relations Act,” according to Mackinac.org.
Mackinac attorneys also argue that it’s improper for school boards to bind their successors to long-term labor agreements.
“By tying the hands of future Taylor school boards, they have lost the ability for the next decade to retain valued teachers who don’t want to pay union dues or agency fees,” Wilcox wrote on Mackinac.org. “Even if a teacher is ‘teacher of the year,’ the school board will be required to fire him or her if they haven’t paid their dues or fees and the union demands it.”
“This is really a union insecurity clause because rather than proving its worth to members, the union is forcing all teachers to continue paying dues or agency fees through 2023,” Wilcox said in a press release.
The lawsuit asks the Wayne County Circuit Court to void the Taylor union security agreement, or at least limit it to the same length as the rest of the negotiated contract, which expires in 2017.
Why they want out
Union dues in the Taylor school district cost teachers about $800 per year, but Metz, Steffke, and Rhatigan have said the lawsuit is about more than the money.
It’s also about how their dues are spent. They don’t believe they’re getting their money’s worth from the TFT, or its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers.
“I just kept coming back to ‘What has my union done for me?’” Rhatigan said.
“Several individuals I have worked with have had to go hire private (legal) counsel because the union didn’t back them up when they had a problem with the board of education,” Steffke added.
Instead, union officials spent heavily on political candidates and causes, such as Michigan’s Proposal 2, an attempt by labor unions to lock collective bargaining into the state’s constitution.
The TFT wasted $125,000 in dues money on Proposal 2, which voters rejected last fall, the Mackinac Center reports.
The union has also spent heavily on salaries and other expensive perks for its top officials, at the same time Michigan teachers faced pay cuts, wage freezes, and other concessions.
The three Taylor teachers “disagree with a 10 percent pay cut being forced on them and other teachers while the president of the AFT Michigan, David Hecker, received nearly 20 percent in additional compensation from 2010 to 2011,” the Mackinac Center reports.
Hecker took home a salary of more than $131,000 in 2011, with a total compensation of more than $176,000. His total compensation increased more than $35,000 from the year before.
“The national AFT president, Randi Weingarten, saw her salary increased from $342,552 in 2010 to $407,323 in 2011.That’s a 16 percent raise,” Mackinac.org reports.
For teachers like Metz, the decision to leave the union if given the opportunity is a no-brainer. Many of their colleagues probably feel the same way, and union officials probably know that.
They need only look to neighboring Wisconsin or Indiana, where teachers freed from compulsory unionism have fled their unions by the droves.
“Has it helped me teach? No. Has it changed anything in my classroom? No,” Metz said of her union membership. “Has it changed my life? Well, ya, because I pay dues.
“And I would really like that money for me.”