News Story

Union Neglected School Custodians —Until It Sued Them For Back Dues

14-member unit says MEA was AWOL for them

A group of 14 custodians who work for Grosse Ile Township Schools is being pursued by the state’s largest teachers union for years of past dues it claims they owe. Two are being sued for nonpayment by the Michigan Education Association. But the maintenance workers at the Wayne County district say their bargaining unit received no representation from the MEA when they were supposed to be members in it.

Jody Lemerand has worked as a custodian in the Grosse Ile district for 18 years. During those years, Lemerand says, she and the other members of the custodial and maintenance unit have been represented by three different unions.

Lemerand has records from when she and her colleagues were represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, from July 2004 until May 2011. She says they were approached by a representative from the Michigan Education Association, which is the union that represents the district’s teachers. The unit agreed to sign up and become members of the MEA.

But according to Lemerand, between May 2011 and July 2018, she and her colleagues received virtually no representation from MEA staff during collective bargaining negotiations with the school district.

Lemerand says members of the maintenance team never received a local bargaining unit number while they were members of the MEA. A union contract reviewed by Michigan Capitol Confidential was signed by the unit as the MEA’s “Grosse Ile Custodial and Maintenance Union Local 3862.” That was the same number attached this group of employees by AFSCME, their previous union.

As a result of the nonrepresentation, Lemerand said, she and her colleagues never paid any dues to MEA. In July, the custodians left the MEA and joined the Teamsters, which designated them as Local 214.

But then in September, the 14 members of Lemerand’s custodial and maintenance team received letters from the MEA saying they owed the state union for unpaid dues. The MEA has since sued Lemerand and a recently retired colleague for unpaid dues from September 2013 through September 2016.

“This was a union that was supposed to be representing us,” Lemerand said. “We did not get representation and now you want us to pay again for not getting representation?”

Lemerand said that lawyers for the MEA have asked if she would like to settle the suit by paying a reduced amount to the union. Both Lemerand and her former colleague refused to settle.

“They try to get you to the point where you just break down and pay them to get them off your back,” Lemerand said.

According to Lemerand, during the time her custodial and maintenance unit was supposed to be represented by the MEA, they lost 30 minutes of paid work time every day, which she said harmed their pensions as well as their short-term disability coverage. She said both the 30 minutes of paid time and the short-term disability were restored in the first contract her unit entered into as members of the Teamsters.

Derk Wilcox, senior attorney at the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, said he believes the MEA has greatly increased its debt collection litigation in 2018 above debt collections from the past couple of years.

“This year, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation has heard from dozens of people being sued for $1,100 on average, and there are likely hundreds more. I have heard from the courts that the MEA is the busiest debt collector in their courts,” Wilcox said in an email statement. “It would not surprise me if they are going after at least ten times more people in court this year than they did in the year before. And it doesn't look like any of these lawsuit collections started until 2016.”

Both the MEA and the Grosse Ile Township school district declined to comment.

In addition to reporting on Lemerand, Michigan Capitol Confidential has covered two other educators — former Garden City special education teacher Judy Digneit and Wyoming, Michigan, public school teacher Michael Fernhout — who also have been sued by the MEA for unpaid dues in 2018.

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation and Michigan Capitol Confidential are projects of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.