EAST LANSING, Mich. – After being compelled to pay thousands of dollars in union dues over 37 years as a teacher, Mary Davenport thought the least it could do was create a harmonious workplace.
Davenport says she got the opposite, which has taken a toll personally and professionally. The veteran teacher still has five years before retirement, and says she just wants to survive it.
“I believe the union and management work together to target certain employees for dismissal, and that has been the case with me,” said Davenport.
Davenport claims she is being cited for vague and trivial offenses, like using her computer at work to go on the Internet during break time. She says the union is refusing to represent her, which means she must hire an attorney at her own expense, to provide what she had imagined all those union dues would cover.
Recent experiences prompted Davenport to write a letter urging Michigan teachers to seriously consider the value of their union membership during an upcoming “August opt-out” window that the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, still claims is the only time teachers are allowed to quit the union. Recent actions by the courts as well as Michigan’s agency overseeing employer-employee relations suggest the MEA is violating the law by enforcing this limitation. The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is fighting the issue in the legal system.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which publishes Michigan Capitol Confidential, helped distribute the letter. In it, Davenport urged fellow school employees to visit www.AugustOptOut.com to understand their union rights under the new right-to-work law.
Davenport also did not expect that the MEA’s response to her letter would be a full-throated attack on her personally and a possible violation of attorney-client privilege. The MEA published a memo on its website detailing her use of union resources, including amounts the MEA spent representing her in grievance filings, and the amount of cash settlements she received from the district, a disclosure Davenport believes was prohibited by the agreement. She plans to discuss the matter with her attorney.
Equally infuriating to her is that the author of the memo, MEA President Steve Cook, is in line to receive a rich government pension, with benefits “spiked” by a dodgy though not illegal deal granted by his former employer, the Lansing school district, which is also where Davenport works. This will let Cook collect a pension based on his six-figure union official salary.
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“If our pension system is in trouble, we don’t need this extra strain,” said Davenport.
Davenport says that unlike Cook, she has a teaching job to protect. If she is fired, it could jeopardize her full pension at retirement time. After growing up in a union family, and serving as a union officer herself for a time, she never expected the union to bail on her when the going got tough.
“(At one point) we did need unions to improve salaries and they have done a lot for medical and employment. Somewhere I felt a change in the last 10 years, where I felt like I was being bullied as a member, and felt like I was paying for a service that was not being provided,” said Davenport.
Davenport said the union did work to help her at one time, but in recent years appeared to lose interest in doing so.
Davenport is unable to leave the union under Michigan’s right-to-work law because her local negotiated a contract that is in effect until 2018. She plans to become a “service fee payer” this year because she needs to save some money from union dues to help pay a private attorney. “Service fee payers” are not union members but must still pay the union around 80-90 percent of full dues to keep their jobs.
“I will probably save $300 a year which will help toward my legal expense,” said Davenport.
Some teachers have taken exception to Davenport’s complaints against the school administration, and believe she has received plenty of service from the union over the years. The conflicting views may in part be due to the nature of the collective bargaining agreements, which are lengthy documents specifying dozens of work rules. Some teachers who have left the union feel the contracts encourage employees to file grievances and eliminate flexibility in relations between staff and administration.
Authored by Anne Schieber
Published with permission