Adam Neuman, a teacher at Brighton High School in Michigan, scored a right-to-work victory after challenging the state teachers union. Neuman, a war veteran who served in Afghanistan, found himself disagreeing with some of the Michigan Education Association’s antiwar activism. When the proper time came, he decided to opt out of the union in accordance with state law.
“In recent years, I became much more vigilant in who/what issues the MEA and NEA [National Education Association] were supporting,” Neuman recounts. “I came to realize that many of the issues and candidates that they supported did not reflect my values, and some issues had nothing to do with education. When the right to work legislation passed, I made up my mind to leave the union. However, I had to wait until the current contract expired to do so.”
Just the Beginning
Neuman thought that would be the end of it. However, the MEA insisted Neuman still had to pay dues for release time, a union procedure that grants public employees taxpayer money while they are doing work for their unions.
“I was initially quite frustrated that I was going to be expected to still pay for the union president’s release time. I had opted out of the union, but heard I was still going to be required to do so because I was still considered a member of the ‘bargaining unit.’ A couple of sympathetic staff members informed me they had heard this,” Neuman said.
Neuman brought the issue up with the school administration, and the administrators wanted nothing to do with it, he recalls.
“I went to the building principal and was referred to the superintendent of the district. He in turn said that this was a union dues issue, and that I would need to contact a union representative, as the district did not handle these things. He suggested a Mr. Bill Bell, the area MEA Director,” he said.
“The next day, before I initiated contact, I actually received an email from Bill Bell, and in it he confirmed that because I was still a member of the ‘bargaining unit’ I would indeed be required to pay the $80.00 for the president’s release time,” Neuman said. “I then decided not to accept the situation and started to look for assistance outside the district.”
Preparing to Fight
Neuman contacted the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, as he was aware of their efforts in other districts in Michigan. Upon hearing his case, Mackinac was eager to support Neuman.
“We took up this case because it was a clear violation of Adam’s freedoms under Michigan’s right-to-work law,” said Mackinac Center Spokesman Ted O’Neil.
“This case is important because we’ve found several other contracts in school districts around the state that contain language that raises serious policy and legal questions,” O’Neil said. “The Michigan Education Association and its affiliates have tried in many ways to sidestep Michigan’s new worker freedom law, and the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation will continue to provide pro bono services to teachers and other school employees harmed by those actions.”
Union Called Suit ‘Baseless’
The legal team found the contract included legal language that conflicted with Michigan’s right-to-work law, which stipulates the expenses for release time fall solely on those who choose to stay in the union.
“During the initial days after the suit was filed, the union president and the superintendent claimed that there was no basis to the lawsuit, that they had never intended to collect this money from those who opted out,” says Neuman. “The union also warned that the Mackinac Center and I ‘had better check our facts’ before filing ‘baseless’ lawsuits.”
Although the union protested the lawsuit at first, once it realized the contract did in fact contain illegal language, it quickly conceded defeat, Neuman recalls. Unfortunately, he has still had to endure backlash from the union’s local branch.
Union’s Efforts to Stigmatize
“I kind of expected that once the suit was settled, meaning the union and district agreed to correct the language issue, there would be some fallout. I was not mistaken in my suspicions. The BEA [Brighton Education Association] put out its monthly union newsletter, early, with a front-page article on how much of a traitor I was,” Neuman said. “They then went on to publish a list of all of the individuals who had opted out of the union. In addition, all union members received a shiny new red button in their staff mailbox with ‘I Opted IN’ on it. Yet another example of their priorities when it comes to spending dues money, I guess.”
Now that the suit is over and Neuman is free from paying dues, he is able to focus on the job he loves, teaching social studies at Brighton High.
“Brighton Area Schools is a great district with some really good professional educators. I would not have come back to teach in the district I graduated from if I didn’t truly believe that,” said Neuman. “I have made a point to say this to all of the media representatives I correspond with: This was not an attempt to ‘break the union,’ nor was it an attempt to embarrass the district. I was standing up for my legal rights and those of the other teachers who chose to opt out of the union. While I am disappointed in the union’s behavior during and since the lawsuit, I am still glad I stood my ground.”
Chris Neal ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.
Image provided by The Mackinac Center.