Teacher: '[Since dropping union] I have been subjected to intimidation, bullying and even threats to ruin my credit rating'
The Michigan Senate announced Thursday that it will investigate the behavior of the Michigan Education Association in regard to actions it has taken to avoid the state's right-to-work law.
Allegations against the MEA, Michigan’s largest teachers union, range from intimidation of teachers to harassment.
"Due to legislation passed in 2012, workers in Michigan have a choice: join a union or don't. Membership cannot be a condition of employment," Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, told reporters at a news conference in the Capitol Building. "When the law was signed, some employees were under pre-existing contracts that contained union security clauses. Provisions were made for these contracts. The legislation also granted employees the right to opt out of union membership. Not granting these rights to any employee would be a direct violation of Michigan law."
Joining Sen. Meekhof was Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township; Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton; and Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor.
The senators announced the creation of the Senate Compliance and Accountability Committee. The new panel is being created to examine the implementation and application of laws passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. It is not a special, or short-term committee, but a regular "standing" committee of the Michigan Senate that eventually would investigate more than just the allegations against the MEA. Sen. Meekhof will chair the committee and the initial hearing on the MEA's actions is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 13.
"The first potential violation that will be addressed by the committee will be a group of at least seven teachers from various areas who have encountered stonewalling or intimidation when they exercised their right to opt out of their Michigan Education Association membership," Sen. Meekhof said. "It has been alleged that this group of teachers was told they could not leave the union because it was not during the August window.
"These teachers were not bound by a union security clause and impeding them from leaving the union was a violation of the Freedom to Work Act," he said. "The teachers in question have also allegedly been strong armed with threats and intimidation such as being told they would face collection of dues and adverse reflection on their credit scores."
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is representing seven teachers who have filed complaints with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission against their local unions and the MEA.
Before the passage of the state's right-to-work law, employees who opted out of a union were still required to pay union fees, thus minimizing the incentive to opt out. Under the new law, those who opt out no longer will be required to pay the union to keep their job.
At the news conference Thursday, a reporter pointed out that the MEA has traditionally reserved August as a "window" in which members could leave the union.
"What the MEA and other unions may have done before the passage of the Freedom to Work law is no longer in force," Sen. Brandenburg said.
Reporters asked what the new committee could do to enforce the law, beyond what the courts would do.
"That would be borne out in committee," Sen. Meekhof said. "First, we'd have to hear the testimony."
Susan Bank, a former principal and current special education teacher in Novi Public Schools, spoke at the press conference.
"I have been dedicated to the education of Michigan students for 39 years," Bank said. "During that time, I have also been a dues paying member of the Michigan Education Association. After passage of the Freedom to Work legislation last December, I made the decision to sever my relationship with the union and discontinue paying dues. Since then, I have been subjected to intimidation, bullying and even threats to ruin my credit rating.
"Although I'm the one standing before you today, trust me when I tell you that I'm not the only one. And I look forward to joining others in testifying before Sen. Meekhof and the committee members," Bank said.
Sen. Brandenburg told reporters that his wife has been a teacher in Michigan for 29 years and paid union dues all along.
"What I want to say to the MEA is that as we are being told to accept Obamacare because it is the 'law of the land,' they have to accept Freedom to Work as the 'law of the land,' " Sen. Brandenburg said. "To besmirch someone's credit rating, especially someone who teaches children — if the allegation is true — I just think that is so unprofessional."
It is unclear if the MEA will actually testify before the new committee.
"They could come, but at this point they don't have to come," Sen. Meekhof said.
MEA Spokesman Doug Pratt told Gongwer news service that teachers had a "legally binding agreement" with the union.