Right to work? Michigan teachers union sics bill collector to go after union dues

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Michigan's 150,000-member teachers union has sicced a bill collector on a kindergarten teacher to recoup $400 in dues it claims she owes, even though the state passed a right-to-work law last year allowing employees to opt out of union membership -- which she claims is what she did.

Kimberle Byrd, a kindergarten teacher for Bangor Public Schools, got a notice last month from Account Receivable Solutions for $394.20 in unpaid dues she allegedly owes to the Michigan Education Association (MEA). Byrd, who could not be reached for comment Monday, told Michigan Capitol Confidential she considers herself out of the union as of last year, when her contract expired.

“They keep trying to beat you down and make you feel like you are so alone,” Byrd said. “Now, they are going to ruin my credit. The easiest thing to do is throw up your hands. I feel very alone. There is nobody I can talk to about it. I don’t know if anybody else has been turned over to creditors.”

A new contract with a tentative agreement for teachers in Byrd’s Van Buren County district was reached on Sept. 9, roughly six months after Michigan’s right-to-work law became effective in late March 2013. Byrd figured the new right-to-work law, which means unions can't force workers to join or pay dues, meant she was free to quit when her contract expired. Under the law, union workers have to affirmatively sign up for automatic dues withdrawal,something Byrd and about 7,000 other teachers have not done.

But the MEA insists that its members can only opt in August, or they have to wait another year. Since Byrd didn't file in August, she is still a rank and filer in the eyes of the MEA. Another year's dues will cost her around $1,100, she told the Washington Examiner. And even if the August rule is legitimate, she had no way of knowing about it, she said.

"They wait until September to start telling you how to pay your dues because they don't want to tell you how to get out," she told the Examiner. "They give you no instructions, no paperwork, no anything prior to September. And at that point, it's too late."

Lisa Jelenek, who teaches in the Laingsburg school district, told the Examiner she is in the same boat as Byrd, and doesn't believe she has any recourse under the state law, which leaves administering of the right to work rule up to the union.

"The local and state MEA representatives intentionally plotted to deceive its members," Jelenek said.

The rule that members can only opt out in August is unfair, and the fact that the union does not make it clear makes it even worse, according to one education think tank.

“August is the only month in which the MEA says you can opt out of membership,” the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s AugustOptOut.org reads. “Don’t miss your window. In a few short weeks you will be able to complete a simple form which will generate the letters you need to opt out of the MEA. Teachers will also be able to see if they are eligible for right-to-work.”

Most union members sign a separate form when they began their job, according to the Mackinac Center, which is representing several teachers in a legal dispute over the limited window. Under right-to-work laws, the MEA can no longer get the workers they represent fired for refusing to pay. The union, however, maintains that the separate agreement means that their members are legally bound to pay the MEA unless they resign in the month of August.

Byrd, a union member for 19 years, estimated that she has paid as much as $17,000 in dues throughout her teaching career. She claims she was unaware of the August window, adding that she assumed she was “free and clear” when her contract ended in August because of the state’s passage of right-to-work laws.

Messages seeking comment from MEA officials were not returned Monday.

Byrd said her local union president, Randy Ward, sent an email to teachers in the bargaining unit identifying Byrd and other members who had not paid dues. One teacher said she simply couldn’t afford them, Byrd told the website.