Union officials complain about members who opt out, but still want to represent them; 'sanctity of contracts' claim questioned during Senate testimony
The Michigan Education Association has no obligation to tell its members that August is the only time they can leave the union, an MEA official said during testimony in front of a Senate committee Wednesday.
However, union members who want to leave can easily find the information on the MEA's website, said Doug Pratt, a spokesman for the MEA.
Pratt, who now also serves as the union's director of member services, testified with two teachers before the Senate Compliance and Accountability Committee. He repeatedly referenced the union's website as a comprehensive tool for union members to find opt-out information, but he stammered when questioned about another aspect of the website that pertained to teacher strikes.
"Why would any membership organization seek to tell someone how to get out?" Pratt testified. "The window period is not a secret."
Pratt said MEA members who specifically asked about how to leave the union were provided the necessary information, but the union did not actively alert union members of their rights under the state's new right-to-work law.
Teachers who have left the union have been criticized publicly by MEA officials. MEA President Steve Cook has called teachers "freeloaders" for exercising their right to leave the union. Unions asked for, and received, permission to exclusively represent all workers when a union is present in a workplace.
Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, chairman of the committee, questioned Pratt about that topic.
"Sometimes I've heard of people who want to leave the union [described as] as 'freeloader'," Sen. Meekhof said. "Is there contention by the MEA that you would wish to be relieved of representing those people who want to opt out of the union?"
After a long pause, Pratt answered, "no."
"I think as was discussed a year ago when PA 349 (Freedom to Work) came about, this is an issue that brings about strong feelings. It brings a lot of divisiveness. It is what it is. But we believe in collective bargaining and we believe in the democratic process. We believe in majority rule and those are things that involve ensuring that we represent everyone within MEA under the law."
Pratt said the "sanctity of contracts" was of the utmost importance to the MEA and that to be "fair" the union had to abide by the contracts exactly as they are written. Sen. Meekhof questioned that testimony, too.
Sen. Meekhof asked Pratt about other information posted on the MEA website, specifically a letter that stated that the MEA always supports members when they engage in strikes.
Under Michigan law, teachers are prohibited from striking.
"Are you familiar with the document on your website entitled, 'Crisis Planning'?" Sen. Meekhof asked.
"There are lots of documents on the MEA website," Pratt said. "I can't say. I don't recall that one in particular."
That exchange came after Pratt stated several times that the union's 147,000 members should have been aware of the August window because the bylaw information is posted on the MEA website.
Republicans on the committee, including Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, questioned the MEA's insistence that union members were aware of the August window. Sen. Brandenburg said he called 15 teachers he knows to ask them if they knew they could leave in August only. He said none were aware of the limited window.
"I think if the MEA was truly for its people they wouldn't confine their leaving," Sen. Brandenburg said.