Michigan union tricks teachers into prolonging membership


By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Rob Wiersema teaches high school economics, and he knows the merits of a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Leaving the Michigan Education Association, he surmised, made economic sense. Another professional association he found, offered better benefits at a lower cost.

But his simple economics become complicated. The union didn’t want him to go.

In December 2012, Michigan passed a Right to Work law, which allowed teachers and other workers to keep their jobs without belonging to the union. Until then, union membership was all but a requirement for employment.

“I thought, great, I’m out,” Wiersema said. “As soon as I heard you could leave, I thought, great. My contract is up in 2013. I sent letters to the MEA and the local association to say I quit, but it obviously didn’t work.”

He called the union and sent letters asking how to leave, but he got no reply. In June, he sent a “quit letter” to the state and local branches and the school. In July, union dues showed up on his credit card.

“I disputed the charge and said I wasn’t going to pay it,” he said. “Then I heard the MEA was going to go after people who didn’t pay it and have their credit reports take a hit.”

The MEA contends that teachers can leave the union in August only.

“People who thought they could exercise their right-to-work rights have unfortunately gotten a rude awakening that (the MEA is) now sending collection notices home,” said Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “If they have not opted out during the narrow window during August, they’re sending a collection agency after them.”

The Mackinac Center developed AugustOptOut.org to give teachers the information they need to leave the union. It’s the MEA’s job to inform its members, Vernuccio said, but the Mackinac Center is trying to fill the information gap.

“Last year there were teachers and other school support personnel and other members of the MEA that wanted to exercise the right but were not informed that August was the only time they were able to do so. Because they missed the window, they were unable to exercise the right,” he said.

Lisa Jelenek, who retired this spring after 40 years teaching first grade through high school, said several teachers in her district applauded the Right to Work law. They think the union is more of a political organization than a service for its members, she said. Dues were high, almost $1,000 a year, and the union had not successfully negotiated a raise for them in several years.

Jelenek and some of her co-workers chose not to re-join the union for the 2013-14 school year, the first year in which right-to-work applied. They didn’t know about the August window until too late.

Lisa Jelenek tried in vain to leave the MEA before she retired.

“Early September, we got an e-bill statement from the union treasurer, the dues statement for the year,” Jelenek said. “We said, ‘What? We’re not joining.’ We found it very convenient that we got it right at the beginning of September, when all the powers that be knew we had to do something in August.”

Jelenek unwillingly remained a union member before retiring, but her former co-workers — about a third of her district’s teachers — are still trying to leave the MEA. She didn’t pay her dues as requested and has been ignoring her monthly billing statements.

“That’s what we were told initially by the unit director — If you don’t pay this, we’re going to send you to collections. We thought, ‘You’re representing me nicely,’” she said.

Wiersema learned about the August window soon enough, so he tried again. He sent letters using registered mail.

“I re-sent my quit letters at that time and finally got out, but I was still hot about having to pay July,” he said.

His status has been changed from “active” to “retired,” though he is still teaching, he said. He’s experienced some blowback from people he called “head hunters” — students whose parents are teachers tried to get him into trouble for minor issues, he said, though that’s calmed down some. Despite the silence he heard after his first attempt to leave, “an executive vice president of some sort” called him personally, asking why he left.

Other than that, not a lot has changed, he said. He has since joined the Association of American Educators, through which he receives better benefits at a fifth to a sixth of the cost, he said.

“If MEA were to offer better than AAE, for a lower price, I’d probably jump back with them,” he said. “I teach economics. It’s really dollars and cents.”

Why does the MEA want to keep members, even if they don’t want to stay?

“Money and power,” Vernuccio said. “Many members can expect to spend or pay around $1,000, give or take, in dues every year, so for every member they lose, that adds up to a lot of cash.”

Several former MEA members said they left because the union funded political candidates or issues on which they disagreed. The National Education Association, of which the MEA is an affiliate, spent several million dollars in lobbying, political activities and donations to advocacy groups, many of them left-leaning.

“It really stuck in my craw that I had to (be a member), but the big thing was that I could save hundreds and hundreds of dollars a year,” Wiersema said. “Freedom of choice , isn’t it supposed to be about that?”

MEA was did not return calls for comment.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.