Right-to-work and union dues: Rubber meets the road

Teachers file unfair labor practice claim against union

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®

CLARKSTON, Mich. - We knew this day would come.

Once union members were no longer compelled to pay their union dues as a condition of employment, some would start evaluating whether they were getting their money's worth from their union and opt-out of writing checks.

Story: Teachers sue MEA union over collection of union dues

The Michigan Education Association finds itself struggling with this problem and will have to bring lawyers in to sort out the mess. In what may be a Michigan first, a paraeducator and seven other full-time teachers have filed an unfair labor practice claim against the union. Usually those kinds of complaints with the Employment Relations Commission originate with the union.

One labor expert I spoke with back when Michigan passed its right-to-work legislation said the law did not have the overt anti-worker impact the unions and the angry protestors were exclaiming. Instead, he said the new law would force unions into having to show membership the value they bring to a member's situation. That can be a problem when teachers are getting laid off and salaries are being reduced and the contracts the unions negotiate come with givebacks.

View: Amy Breza's charges against MEA

Local 4 spoke with paraeducator Amy Breza who works with cognitively impaired children at Sashabaw Middle School in Clarkston. On Monday, she joined seven full-time teachers in filing an unfair labor practice claim against the Michigan Education Association. Amy's largest frustration is her paraeducator local did not inform her of the August "opt-out" window where she could notify the union she was not going to pay her union dues.

Instead, the union started coming around school looking to get her banking information or a credit card in order to start collecting her dues. She had investigated her rights under the new law and said the law explicitly states the union cannot force her to pay. When her local president was unhappy with her choice she decided she had to fight back, not because she is anti-union. In fact, Breza is the past president of her local and had even negotiated a contract, but because she simply cannot afford to pay.

She says she has five children, two in college and she makes $11.43 an hour. She says the union dues come to a full paycheck annually -- a full paycheck she cannot afford to part with. But in order to file a claim she had to get into the legalities of it all and what she is now looking to get a ruling on is whether the union is obliged to inform her that there is an "opt-out" window and that there should be no time limit on when she can opt out.

Amy's is the tamest of the lot. Other teachers from up north are claiming their MEA locals are threatening them, even bullying them into paying their dues. Some say the MEA is telling teachers they will get collection agencies after them to get the money which would impact their credit ratings. All of these tactics fly in the face of the law. Whether that is actually happening is up to the legal process in Lansing. The MEA has not been served with the paperwork you see here on clickondetroit.com so they are not commenting.

Union members who believe they are getting good value, that the union assures them of having a job will tell you that Amy Breza and others like her are "freeloaders." Their reasoning is that because they reap the benefits of collective bargaining but do not have to pay they are getting a free ride.

Amy Breza looked at her $11.43 an hour and said the union negotiated that wage for her and she is having trouble making ends meet. This is where the rubber meets the road for both the unions and membership and where the right-to-work law will create friction.

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