Less than six months after the Michigan Education Association boasted of how it retained 99 percent of its membership after the state's right-to-work law went into effect, a union executive testified under oath that about 8,000 members have not filled out paperwork to have dues automatically taken from their paycheck.
Eight thousand people not paying dues is a far greater number than the 1,500 the union claimed were not paying because they exercised their rights and opted out of the union.
In testimony before the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, MEA Executive Director Gretchen Dziadosz said some teachers had not been contacted about the union's dues collection policy and that others hadn't paid because they likely were caught in technical problems the union said it was having.
However teachers across the state say they have received multiple notices from the MEA about its E-Dues policy and been told that if they don't hand over their credit card information or bank account number for dues withdrawal the union will send a collection agency after them.
Coopersville kindergarten teacher Miriam Chanski and Petoskey gym teacher William "Ray" Arthur said they got no information about how to get out of the union, but said the union contacted them repeatedly about paying dues. Chanski and Arthur and a group of other teachers from across the state filed unfair labor practice complaints against the MEA asking that they be allowed to leave.
The MEA dropped its fight to keep Chanski and Arthur in the union and agreed to let them out recently. The cases against the remaining teachers are still pending before MERC.
Allowing two teachers to leave could pose a problem for the MEA in how it deals with the 8,000 union members who have not paid dues this year. MEA Spokesman Doug Pratt was asked on WKAR last fall if the publicity from the unfair labor practice complaints could cause more members to stop paying dues.
"You know what," Pratt said on WKAR. "I think when it comes right down to it, it's who we are as an organization. We deal with contracts. We enforce contracts and when we have a membership form for an individual that says I can opt out in August that's a contract between us and that member."
But Arthur questioned why the August opt-out window was during such an inconvenient time for teachers.
"Why would you have a window in August when teachers aren't even in school; a window that is just 30 days, about 10 percent of the year, during a time they're not working?” the hall of fame wrestling coach said. "In my mind, they purposely kept the opt-out date from the membership to stop the bleeding of the membership and the money."
John Ellsworth, a teacher in the Grand Ledge Public Schools, said it didn't matter to him whether it was 8,000 teacher or eight teachers.
"The MEA should have actively informed its members of the open enrollment period," Ellsworth said in an email. "I think the MEA failed to inform its members of the open enrollment period, and it should have this school year especially because of changes to state law. I think all members deserve to be told when their membership is renewing. I don't mind if the default is renewal, but members should be informed of the open enrollment period so they can opt out if they desire to do so. I think a reasonable remedy for this year is for MEA to offer a special open enrollment period right now and to actively contact members about it. Members could then make an informed decision about whether to stay in the union or to leave it. I think it is reasonable to hold people accountable for agreeing to be in the union so long as they were clearly given the option to decline continuing membership. I don't think that happened this time, even though there was a substantial change in state law."
Ellsworth said there could be many reasons why the teachers stopped paying dues.
"I am quite certain there are a variety of reasons," Ellsworth said. "Some of my peers were upset with the lack of information about the open enrollment period. Some of my peers think the dues are expensive. Some of my peers decided the only pay raise they would get was by not paying dues since their paychecks were diminished and their expenses increased. Some of my peers did not want to sign up for automatic deductions (although recent MEA improvements now allow for one-time online payments)."
Dusty Fairfield, a teacher at Ravenna Public Schools, said in an email he felt sorry for the MEA.
"They (MEA) are sinking fast and they refuse to let go of a fistful of money to grab a life jacket," Fairfield said. "Eight thousand teachers are not paying dues because they have families to take care of. With all the financial cuts made recently, they need every dollar they earn to survive. Homes are being lost. Priorities have trumped being represented by a union. It's a matter of survival for some."