At first blush, one could assume the Michigan Education Association would be against humiliating and intimidating school employees, especially the ones it represented for years.
The MEA says all the right things. In the Sept. 2013 edition of its magazine, "Voice," it warned about a survey that showed how cyberbullies were targeting school employees with the "obvious psychological harm" it causes. And earlier this year, MEA Spokesman Doug Pratt told a Senate committee that the MEA doesn't divulge information on the standing of union members "due to privacy considerations."
Yet, the MEA has remained silent as one of its own affiliates has engaged in what some have called bullying by posting the names of members who left the union and referring to them as "freeloaders" in a newsletter. The MEA 17 B/C union in the Upper Peninsula published the names of 16 employees who opted out in its newsletter.
Because of current laws that were pushed for and advocated by unions, workers in union shops are not allowed to represent themselves. Before the state's right-to-work law went into effect, workers had to pay dues or fees to the union or they could be fired. The state's right-to-work law does not change anything related to collective bargaining, but ensures that workers cannot be fired for not paying dues or fees, which often are up to 90 percent of the cost of dues.
When asked earlier this year at a Senate hearing whether the MEA wants to be relieved of representing workers who choose not to pay them money, the union's spokesperson, Doug Pratt, answered, "No."
Many former union members who opted out said they didn’t want to comment about the intimidation tactics for fear of further retaliation from the unions. Others were angry and wanted to voice their objections.
That includes Carrie Adams, a paraprofessional at an elementary school at Lakeshore Public Schools in Berrien County. Her name was included in the Operating Engineers Local 324 newsletter as a "RTW freeloader" that was put online.
Adams said when right-to-work became law, she asked her union representative about her options but she said the union rep got angry and told her the union was worth every penny without offering any other assistance. Adams said she also got threatening letters about paying her dues because the union no longer could deduct them automatically. She said she reached out to her union again for assistance but got no response.
"It was worse than calling the cable company," Adams said.
Adams decided to opt out. She heard nothing from the union. But she said her husband received a text from a friend that read: "LOL! I see your wife made the union newsletter right to work freeloaders list."
"Only I wasn't laughing out loud," Adams said. "I was completely embarrassed and I was soon approached by others mentioning that I hadn't paid my dues. Only it had nothing to do with paying dues or freeloading, it was outright harassment and public humiliation. … In fact, everyone who gets the union newsletter sees my name as a freeloader."
MEA President Steven Cook has made a point to refer to union members who opt out as "freeloaders" in his own columns as well as on TV appearances and he went so far as to say on the union's website that leaving the union is "un-American."
But even with that, the union still wants to represent everyone. In a Senate committee hearing last year, Pratt said the union didn't want to lose the opportunity to represent people who left the union. He also made a point to talk about confidentiality and protecting member's privacy.
He said the MEA doesn't divulge the status of its members when asked specifically about Miriam Chansky, a kindergarten teacher in the Coopersville school district who filed suit against the MEA when she was denied a chance to leave her union.
"I don't know if she is currently paying dues or not," Pratt said at the hearing. "That's not something we divulge to the public due to privacy considerations of our members. Whether or not Ms. Chansky's a fan of ours at the moment we're still not going to divulge her standing to the public, but what I can say is, yeah, she communicated to the MEA."
Pratt and Nancy Knight, the MEA's new director of communications, did not respond to requests for comment.