LANSING – Officials with the Michigan Education Association have repeatedly stated only about one percent of their members have left the teachers union since state lawmakers passed right-to-work legislation last year.
The statistic, like most cited by union officials, is virtually impossible to verify, but anecdotal evidence in school districts across the state seems to belie the union’s claim. Observations by Michigan labor experts also suggest a significant increase in teachers leaving the MEA, despite the union’s underhanded efforts to keep them in the fold.
“I don’t think it’s solely right-to-work” driving the exodus, labor attorney LaRae Monk told EAGnews. “They’re seeing the union is … less effective. A lot of it goes to the failure of the MEA to do their job of effectively representing them, while raising their dues.”
That seems to be the case in the Ravenna school district in west Michigan, where one-third of local teachers union members ditched the MEA this year with the help of right-to-work laws that eliminate union membership as a condition of employment.
More recently, several teachers and other school employees from across the state have accused the MEA of obstructing their efforts to drop their membership by only recognizing requests to do so during the month of August, the union’s prescribed time for resignations.
The controversy prompted the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the National Right to Work Committee to bring legal action against the MEA through the Michigan Employment Relations Commission on behalf of school employees. State senators also formed a committee to explore allegations the MEA stonewalled members who want to leave, and are taking testimony from those affected in a series of hearings.
The whole debacle is providing a very compelling argument for why the MEA, and teachers unions in general, are bad for education, while simultaneously exposing the embarrassing lengths union officials will go to in order to force their members to stay.
MEA tomfoolery in Ravenna
Ravenna teachers began to lose faith in the MEA as far back as 2011, when the teachers union negotiated a contract with the school board that exchanged significant pay cuts for an agreement to maintain heath insurance through MESSA, a MEA-affiliated company with rates typically much higher than competitors.
“That contract from two years ago destroyed a lot of faith in the MEA,” Paul Richards, a Ravenna teacher who dropped out of the union this year, told Mlive.com. “We were sold down the river to keep MESSA.”
As a result, teachers’ paychecks shrank significantly. One educator told the newspaper his pay decreased 21 percent in 2011, while another said the move cut $10,000 from his pay, the news site reports.
Teachers eventually switched to another insurance company, but many remained angry at the MEA over the issue and local union officials considered disassociating from the state union, although ultimately decided to stay.
Roughly a third of local teachers, however, left the union that year because of the MESSA issue.
But then it happened again. When insurance rates for the district’s new health insurance carrier went up this year by 30 percent, the teachers union reevaluated its health insurance coverage, but refused to consider the opinion of those who were not active members.
With nonmembers unable to vote on the decision, the MEA was able to reinstall its beloved MESSA insurance as the district’s health care provider. For Richards and many other teachers, that meant his family plan increased by $3,000 per year, in part because of state-imposed caps on how much districts can contribute toward employee health insurance premiums.
Richards, and others in the district, want the union to release them from the teachers contract to use the $14,000 the district contributes toward their health insurance to find coverage they can afford. The union, of course, has refused, and only offers a $500 credit in the contract.
“The next thing to go is cable – cable and the home phone,” Richards told Mlive.com about the financial problems the union shenanigans is causing his family. “I may not be able to afford insurance next year.”
Nearly one in three Ravenna teachers no longer associate with the MEA, mostly because they believe the union is more interested in revenue than providing real representation for members.
Other districts, other dirty tactics
Monk, the labor attorney, said the union strife in Ravenna isn’t an isolated occurrence, and an increasing number of teachers and other school employees in districts across the state are coming to the realization they’re not getting their money’s worth from the MEA.
Many have tried to leave the MEA, but the union is making it difficult in a number of ways. Aside from enforcing the union’s silly “August drop window,” MEA officials are allegedly securing contracts with local school officials that treat nonmembers like second-class citizens, or force them to stay in the union against their will.
Monk recently received a call from a nonunion member in another west Michigan school district that can no longer afford his health insurance because of a new union contract that results in higher rates for nonmembers than for members.
“He was going to be paying substantially more for his family plan if he didn’t remain in the union,” Monk said. “What needs to be exposed is the shenanigans the unions are trying to pull to keep these teachers in” the MEA.
In union contract negotiations at Wayne State University, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Taylor Public Schools, for example, MEA negotiators threw its members under the bus – agreeing to unprecedented concessions – to write mandatory union membership into the contract.
“One of the … tactics the MEA has been doing is giving major concessions in exchange for union security clauses,” Monk said, adding that school officials have made the most of the MEA’s desperation.
In Taylor, teachers will be required to pay dues for another decade because of the union security clause, which was ratified in the contract before the state’s right-to-work law took effect. At Wayne State, teachers are locked in for eight years.
While manipulating its members is nothing new for the MEA, Monk said union representatives have also gotten more aggressive and more desperate since the state passed right-to-work.
Monk, who specializes in helping local teacher leaders break ties with the MEA, was recently called to the Pine River school district to meet with classified staff there about the possibility of dropping their parent union.
She rented a private meeting room to speak with more than a dozen school employees in September, but the MEA’s local UniServ director was bent on disrupting the proceedings.
“He stormed into the meeting and tried to talk over me,” Monk said. “He was just nasty, bullying.
“Finally, one of the leaders (of the local school employees) picked up the phone and called the police.”