After 35 years of teaching, Ray Arthur decided he would make the current school year his last and retire at the end.
So he sent the Michigan Education Association a letter in September requesting they drop him as a member. He didn’t see much point in staying since he was, by then, a short-timer.
Arthur then learned that MEA only accepted such requests during the month of August. Nobody in the union had told him this beforehand.
"They said they were not legally required to tell us about [it]," Arthur explained to me.
It is a common problem in new right-to-work states. While the laws prohibit people from being required to join a union to get or keep a job, implementing the laws is typically left up to the unions themselves.
They don't make it easy for the workers trying to exercise their rights. Unions have no incentive to make it easy, since the laws can mean the loss of members, draining their coffers.
So union leaders have developed several inventive obstruction tactics. They appear to work, too. MEA President Steve Cook, for example, announced earlier this month that 99 percent of his union’s members had not taken advantage of the Wolverine State’s newly passed law.
"After the other side set up websites, held seminars and town halls, and sent tens of thousands of emails directly to members, 99 percent of the MEA membership said, ‘No, thank you,' " Cook said.
MEA spokesman Doug Pratt reiterated the point in an email to me last week. He added: “MEA believes in the sanctity of contracts — whether they are with a school district or an individual — and the democratic process.”
Arthur scoffed, noting that he is one of Cook’s 99 percent even though he tried to leave. “It is easier to get on Obamacare than it is to get out of my union,” he said.
Because MEA rejected his request for being late, he now owes another year’s worth of dues — more than $1,300. The union also informed him that if he didn’t pay, it would report him to a collection agency.
Kindergarten teacher Miriam Chanski had a similar experience. “I feel they withheld the information of the August window on purpose," she told a local television station. She now fears for her credit rating.
Chanski and Arthur are two of at least nine teachers suing MEA for unfair labor practices. Similar cases have been filed by Indiana union members against the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Communication Workers of America.
Michigan’s right-to-work law, like most such laws, does not specify a time period for members to opt out. The unions came up with that themselves.
"Funny [MEA] should make it August, since we are not in school at the time," Arthur said.
He’s lucky to have that long. Some union opt-out windows are as short as two weeks. The Indianapolis branch of the UFCW's is just five days.
Requests might also be rejected if the member makes even a minor paperwork error — that is, when the requests are not getting mysteriously lost in the mail.
Not all workers face these problems. In Wisconsin, public sector employees are no longer required to be in unions and must re-affirm their membership if they want to remain.
That is an exception, though, and it is only because Republican Gov. Scott Walker had the opt-in requirement specifically written into his 2011 union reforms.
For years now, liberal critics have denounced voter ID laws as little more than “voter suppression” tactics for simply requiring people to provide the same level of proof required for a gym membership.
Would any of those critics be willing to spare some similar outrage for tactics clearly designed to undermine state laws and deny individual rights? Rights that the perpetrators have a financial motive to undermine?