News Story

Union Sues Teacher For Exercising Her Right-To-Work Option

Michigan banned compulsory union fees in 2013, MEA still trying to collect them

More than five years after Michigan’s right-to-work law went into effect, the state’s largest teachers union is trying to collect fees from teachers who exercised their right under the law to stop paying these fees.

Judy Digneit, a retired teacher who worked with special needs students in Garden City, became one of the teachers the Michigan Education Association targeted for debt collection, after she chose to stop paying the union.

In April 2018, the MEA sued Digneit, claiming she owed it $559.69 in dues and $792 in agency fees. The term “agency fees” refers to money an individual had to pay a union even after opting out, before the passage of right-to-work.

Unions contended that the fees only included costs directly related to collective bargaining and contract enforcement, and not other union activities, such as political activism. Opponents of the compulsory payments have long argued that unions used the fees for activities not related to collective bargaining agreements.

Nationwide, the distinction between dues and fees became moot for public sector employees in June 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME. The court held that compulsory agency fees violate public employees’ First Amendment freedoms of speech and association.

In Michigan, the distinction between dues and fees ended when a right-to-work law went into effect in 2013. That law prohibits unions from compelling workers to pay either dues or fees. Even so, the MEA and other unions have used various devices in attempts to keep collecting from workers.

Digneit was set to be subject to Garden City’s collective bargaining agreement that was, in the words of the agreement, “effective as of the first day of September, 2015,” when she sent two letters to the MEA in August 2015 expressing her desire to terminate her membership.

According to the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which responded to the MEA’s lawsuit on behalf of Digneit, the collective bargaining agreement went into effect after March 28, 2013, so it was subject to Michigan’s right-to-work law and therefore, the MEA cannot collect union dues for the 2015-16 school year.

“It’s simply awful for someone who has spent a lifetime teaching and earning people’s trust, and then to have their union sue them and essentially call them a deadbeat,” Derk Wilcox, a senior attorney with the Mackinac Center, said in a statement. “This can harm their well-earned credit score, or damage someone who is trying to rebuild their credit. It especially galling when the MEA is pursuing an illegitimate debt from someone who wrote not just one, but two letters resigning membership in the union. It’s more like a vendetta after a lifetime of faithfully paying dues.”

MEA Director of Public Affairs Doug Pratt did not respond to an email and a phone call requesting comment.