The president of Michigan’s largest union is instructing officials to prepare to sue its own members, according to a leaked memo issued after the state adopted right-to-work laws in December.
Steven Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association, circulated an email to local unions officials and staff instructing them to monitor revenue streams in light of the right-to-work laws, which are set to go into effect on March 27, 2013. The law allows workers to opt out of union membership unless they have an existing contract with their employer.
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"We will use any legal means at our disposal to collect the dues owed under signed membership forms from any members who withhold dues prior to terminating their membership in August," Cook wrote.
The tone of the message shocked labor reform activists.
"The level to which the MEA appears to be willing to go after its own members—the same ones whose interest they claim to represent—is amazing," said Mike Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center. "When it comes to their revenue, we know where their priorities stand."
The email is on legally sound footing, however. Nor would it be the first time the MEA has pursued legal action against teachers. The union’s Grand Rapids chapter sued a teacher who refused to pay dues in 2008 because the labor group refused to make concessions during the financial crisis.
"This was something I needed to do based on principle, in hopes of things happening differently in the future," special education teacher Marjorie Hayward told MLive.com in 2011. "My biggest concern at the time was their insistence of wanting more money and benefits when everyone else in the state was having to make do with less because of the economy."
Hayward and the other protesting members were forced to pay $100 per month in back dues.
The MEA did not return requests for comment.
Multiple unions are filing lawsuits against the state to block the implementation of the law. However, Cook did not appear confident those lawsuits would succeed.
"The long and the short of it is, the litigation angle should not be relied on to overturn the act," the leaked memo states.
Glenn Taubman, an attorney with the National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation, said Cook’s fears are well-founded, pointing to Indiana’s recent courtroom victory over unions attempting to block its right-to-work law.
"He recognizes that the courts are not going to strike down right-to-work; it’s been upheld for too long," he said. "That doesn’t mean they won't try; they have a lot at stake and plenty of forced dues money, but they have to know that their odds are slim."
Cook urged the union leaders to put new long-term contracts in place before the March 27 deadline to prevent employees from leaving the union. The union is also attempting to limit the ability of existing employees to leave the union by requiring that members resign "in August—and only in August."
Wisconsin’s two largest teachers unions were devastated after Republican Gov. Scott Walker allowed educators to opt out of unions. They are now on the brink of merging to counter their reduced membership.
The leaked memo gives a "rare glimpse" into union strategy and its mindset in the wake of successful labor reforms in Michigan as well as Wisconsin and Indiana, Taubman said.
"They’re finally sensing that they lost politically, they lost legally, and that there’s no support for compulsory unionism among the public, legislature, or courts," he said.