By Steve Gunn
TAYLOR, Mich. – Angela Steffke, Rebecca Metz and Nancy Rhatigan are three teachers who value their freedom.
They thought their fundamental right to choose whether or not to join a labor union was guaranteed last year when Michigan lawmakers passed right-to-work legislation.
But then their local union stabbed them in the back, cutting a deal with the Taylor school board to adopt a 10-year “union security clause” which will force all teachers to pay union dues for the next decade.
On the surface the clause appears to be legal because the state’s right-to-work law doesn’t take effect until March 27. And the law won’t affect workplaces until labor agreements negotiated before that date expire.
But the three Taylor teachers are not taking the betrayal sitting down. They have joined forces with the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation and filed a lawsuit seeking to have the “union security clause” declared invalid, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“This is about our civil rights,” Steffke, a special education teacher in the Taylor school district, was quoted as saying in a press release. “This is about fighting for our freedom of association and fighting against coercion in the workplace.”
The Taylor school district is not the only place where unions have been trying to skirt the right-to-work law. Many unions around the state, mostly in K-12 school districts and universities, have raced to extend current labor agreements, or negotiate new agreements, before the law takes effect.
Most have negotiated long-term deals that will keep right-to-work from liberating their members for years.
Union leaders are obviously hoping that a more union-friendly governor and legislature are elected in 2014 and will revoke right-to-work legislation before it affects them.
Officials at Wayne State University have been asked to testify in front of a state House committee regarding their recent decision to give their faculty union a new eight-year labor contract that includes the same “union security clause,” according to MLive.com.
Battle lines are drawn
Taylor teachers union members were recently asked to vote on two separate agreements with the school district.
They voted 362-83 to approve the union security clause for 10 years. They also voted 365-79 to approve a new four-year collective bargaining agreement with the district.
The terms of the collective bargaining agreement are telling. The union accepted a 10 percent pay cut for teachers, and agreed to force teachers to pay more toward their own health insurance coverage.
Those are terms that most teachers unions would reject without a second thought. In this case the terms were obviously used as leverage to convince the school board to approve the union security clause.
The Taylor union is apparently desperate to maintain its dues revenue, and fears the loss of members who may have left when the right-to-work law clicks in.
But the three teachers who filed the lawsuit believe the union security clause is illegal for two reasons: They say Michigan law prohibits such an agreement from lasting longer than the collective bargaining agreement. They also say the law prohibits such agreements from binding future school boards to honor them, which would obviously be the case in Taylor.
“This is really a union insecurity clause, because rather than proving its worth to members, the union is forcing all teachers to continue paying dues or agency fees through 2023,” Derk Wilcox, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation’s senior attorney, told the Free Press.
In the meantime, Michigan legislators want to talk to people at various schools and universities who have been crafting the union security clauses. Last week they invited officials from the Taylor district to testify before the House Oversight Committee, but nobody from the district showed up, according to MLive.com.
Now State Rep. Tom McMillin, chairman of the committee, has invited officials from Wayne State University to testify about the new eight-year collective bargaining agreement that contains a union security clause. A university spokesman refused to say whether officials would accept the invitation, according to the news report.
“This is a very unusual (contract) extension, and I believe students and parents struggling to pay tuition, and the taxpayers that help fund the university would appreciate hearing how this is beneficial,” McMillin said. “The committee is interested in the background of this particular agreement since it appears to be the first of its kind for a university in this state.”