After an overwhelmingly successful informational campaign where the Mackinac Center’s August Opt Out Project told Michigan Education Association members statewide about their rights and the limits their union tried to put on right-to-work, the MEA continues its attempt to provide inaccurate information to its members and to the public.
Regardless of how many teachers and other school personnel exercised their rights during the MEA’s arbitrary (and now ruled illegal) "August Window," the goal of the project was to make sure that every member knew about when and how to exercise those rights.
It was their choice whether to stay in the MEA or leave. Throughout the summer we heard from people who were happy with the union and others who were very grateful for the information.
Here are just some of the comments we received from teachers:
“Ok, thanks for the information!”
“Your August Opt Out is the talk of our district. Thanks for making the opting out a streamlined process.”
“I mailed it out yesterday! Thanks for your guidance in this matter.”
A local union secretary told us she was opting out after working 15 years without ever hearing about the “August window” from the MEA.
Some recently elected local union presidents called us with questions about how to help members who asked questions about opting out because they didn’t have the answers.
In all of these cases, we provided objective information and the member made the personal decision whether to stay or leave the MEA.
Teachers wanting to opt out had an uphill climb. The MEA sent around a document to those interested in opting out called a “Nonmember Informed Consent Form.” It told the member to initial the document 25 times, and even after doing all of that, the member had not effectively opted out using that form.
We saw one union local that made false claims, telling members they would lose sick leave benefits if they opted out.
However, contradicting statements from the MEA regarding the “August window” had started well before the summer of 2014.
During the Oct. 4, 2013, airing of WKAR’s “Off the Record” television program, Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook said his worst fear was that thousands of people would have opted out of the teachers union.
In October 2013, the MEA reported 1,500 people had “appropriately” resigned their membership that August. Cook told the “Off the Record” panel, “Ninety-nine percent of the members who could have either become freeloaders or fee-payers chose to stay with the Michigan Education Association. We lost 1 percent.”
That statement contained several inaccuracies. Ninety-nine percent did not choose to stay with the MEA. The MEA’s own executive director said under oath that roughly 8,000 members were not paying dues in 2013. That’s 7 percent of active members who were not paying.
In 2013, the Mackinac Center’s director of education policy, Audrey Spalding, estimated roughly 15,000 MEA members were eligible to leave the union under right-to-work because their contracts expired after March 28, 2013. During August all MEA members can choose to opt-out of the union, however in school districts without right-to-work they can only become agency fee payers and must still pay a vast majority of their dues. Because of the difficulty in becoming an agency fee payer and the lack of any substantial savings, very few union workers choose to go this route.
The reported number of 1,500 leaving the union in 2013 was 10 percent of the eligible members, not 1 percent. (The number of agency fee payers dropped from 606 in 2012 to 582 in 2013 according to documents the MEA submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor. Still, some of the 1,500 could be attributed to members in non-right-to-work districts becoming agency fee payers but that number is likely very low).
To equal 1 percent, the total number of eligible members would have had to be 150,000, which it was not. There aren’t even 150,000 active MEA members. Including retirees, the 2013 number of MEA members was 147,659 according to the MEA’s LM-2 filing. It showed 33,259 retirees, which should not be calculated in the total pool regarding right-to-work employees or agency fee payers.
Removing retirees from the number of total MEA members leaves 114,400. So the first problem is that the MEA started with a faulty denominator.
That brings us to this year. On MEA.org, the numbers reported are quite different too, but not entirely accurate. The article says that less than 5,000 left the union, which it says is less than 5 percent of 110,000 active members. At least the MEA now says the proper denominator is 110,000, not 150,000. That’s thanks to the Mackinac Center pointing out the false numbers originally reported in 2013.
Most reporters now use the smaller number too, making the story more accurate. But 5 percent is not the true number. The Mackinac Center estimates 60,000 MEA members were eligible to exercise right-to-work in 2014. The MEA says roughly 5,000 did. That means more than 8 percent of MEA members in right-to-work districts opted out in 2014, not including the 10 percent who opted out in 2013. (With perhaps a small amount of agency fee payers added in.) Adding the eligible members and those who opted out for 2013 and 2014, the better number may be 10.5 percent of those eligible opted out in the last two years.
What was the difference? Brave teachers stood up to the state’s largest public employee union and made decisions for themselves. Many faced bullying from the MEA and their co-workers. The MEA sent many to a collections agency, posted their names publicly, called them “freeloaders” and called them out during meetings.
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation began this informational effort when it filed unfair labor practice complaints with the Michigan Employee Relations Commission. In 2013, several teachers contacted the Mackinac Center for legal representation regarding the “August window” that they had never heard of prior to being threatened by the MEA for money.
William “Ray” Arthur, a hall-of-fame wrestling coach in Petoskey, said he had never heard of the “August window” in all of his 34 years of paying union dues. Miriam Chanski, a kindergarten teacher in Coopersville, said she tried to opt out in the summer of 2013 and that the MEA kept information from her and told her she owed money because her actions were not in August.
After several stories in Michigan Capitol Confidential and coverage in state and national media outlets, the MEA eventually allowed Chanski and Arthur out of the union. However, it refused to let the other teachers out.
This prompted our informational effort to educate MEA members of their rights. The Mackinac Center sent a postcard to teachers at the beginning of June. We followed up with another one in late August.
MEA officials called the postcards "Madison avenue style." We took that as a compliment because they were produced by the Mackinac Center design staff.
Peter Boyd, a science teacher at Martin Public Schools, authored an email that went to teachers prior to the end of the 2013-2014 school year.
Rob Wiersema, an economics teacher at Hopkins Public Schools who opted out in 2013, authored an email that went out to his fellow teachers in August.
The MEA produced three videos over the summer featuring its top three officers: its president, vice president and secretary/treasurer. In an August video, the MEA’s secretary/treasurer went on a nearly three-minute diatribe against the Mackinac Center. The other two videos explicitly cited the Mackinac Center. One video mentioned the Mackinac Center by name 14 times.
Cook said, “And then there’s the Mackinac Center. They will help you in every way possible to leave MEA.”
MEA leaders said they had no interest in making the “August window” opt out period known to its members, so the Mackinac Center took on the challenge of informing members of their rights.
The Mackinac Center established the website AugustOptOut.org, which contained basic information of the options available to workers who want to stay with their union, become an agency fee payer or exercise their right-to-work freedom.
Other organizations like Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, Michigan Freedom Fund and Great Lakes Education Project also created awareness of the “August window.”
The Mackinac Center’s August Opt Out effort gained more than 300 media citations in hundreds of outlets across the country.
Only the MEA knows how many of its members simply aren’t paying. At first, MEA leadership said those employees were just mistaken and believed that they were still paying dues. However, in an MLive article authored by Tim Skubick, MEA President Steve Cook told a group of retired teachers that the union sent a collections agency after those who “don’t intend to pay.”
Which brings us to now. Steve Cook’s “worst fear” happened in August 2014. By its own numbers, roughly 5,000 people dropped out of the union in August. That number means from 2013 to 2014 the number of those leaving the union more than tripled.
And with an administrative law judge saying the “August window” is illegal, more may be able to exercise their rights at any time, rather than during a narrow window established by the union.