Michigan Teacher Chooses to Be ‘Non-Member’ of Union

Michigan teacher finds it’s not so easy, or cheap, to become a former member of a teachers union

Ever wonder what it costs to quit a labor union?

For one Michigan educator, the annual costs of “non-membership” in the local, state and national teacher unions total $544.28.

But Andrew Buikema, 10-year teacher with Grant Public Schools, is willing to pay the price, just for the privilege of being seen as a true professional, instead of a union worker.

Michigan is not a “right to work” state, which means Buikema’s job is still affected by the district’s contract with the local teachers union, the Grant Education Association. The GEA is affiliated with the Michigan Education Association and the National Education Association.

Buikema has been trying to leave the union since last spring, when he realized that GEA leaders were uninterested in helping the district control costs, even in the face of a multi-million dollar deficit.

By refusing to make wage and benefit concessions, the union contributed to conditions that led to 27 teachers – including Buikema – receiving layoff notices. The district was also forced into making cuts to student academic and extracurricular programs.

Buikema’s job was saved at the last minute, but he was disgusted by the union’s selfishness.

The union’s intransigence convinced Buikema that “the union doesn’t care about kids.”

“They keep asking for more and more, even though the school district can’t afford it,” he told EAG. “They’re concerned about taking care of the adults and have no consideration for the kids. I don’t want to be part of an organization that says one thing and does another,” he said.

Buikema said he was “raked over the coals” by his local union leaders when he suggested the GEA could help alleviate the district’s financial woes – and possibly help save some teaching jobs – by switching from union-owned and operated MESSA health insurance to a less expensive carrier.

Buikema estimated that the district could save between $530,000 and $980,000 annually.

Not only did local union leaders not like Buikema’s idea, but they verbally attacked him for even suggesting it.

“The amount of flak I got, particularly from veteran teachers, was ridiculous to the point of being unprofessional,” he said.

Buikema was also put off by the NEA’s new $10 levy on members to help re-elect President Obama.

“It’s the principle involved,” Buikema said at the time. “They’re taking money to support a candidate that members may or may not support. That’s a very big deal.”

Unions bury dissenters in pile of legal documents

Last summer, Buikema decided to cancel his union membership altogether.

The MEA and NEA finally responded to his resignation request last month by sending approximately 150 pages of documents. The upshot of all those documents is this: Buikema can technically quit both unions, but he must still pay them $544.28 in “service fees,” which equals 67.7 percent of a normal union membership.

“Dear Non-Member,” the MEA letter begins, “You are employed in a bargaining unit represented by an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association. … Your collective bargaining agreement contains a provision which requires you to join the association or to pay a service fee.”

Another document explains that those service fees are based on “annual expenditures … incurred for the purpose of performing the duties of an exclusive representation of the employees.”

The unions claim the service fee only pays for activities that don’t involve an “ideological cause or political activity unrelated to collective bargaining, contract administration, grievance adjustment and lawfully chargeable employee representation.” A 64-page document breaks down all of the separate charges that go into the $544.28 fee, and explains how each is allowed under current law.

Yesterday, Buikema sent his own letter to the MEA:

“I am enclosing a check for $25 to the MEA, because that’s what I can afford to do right now. You will receive the remaining balance as I am able to pay. …

” … Forcing teachers to join your organization and pay dues is criminal. What happened to free will and the right to choose? I am trying to get out of the union because you don’t stand for kids.

” … You send this massive packet of … legal documents that I cannot decipher because I am not a lawyer … to do what exactly? Scare me? Intimidate me? What you are proving is that you will go to great lengths to get people’s money. …”

As a non-member, Buikema has the legal right to contest any of the “service fee” charges, but it entails a long and complicated legal process. And the MEA and NEA are well-represented by lawyers and accountants, as the stack of documents makes clear. The implication is obvious: It is futile for an individual teacher to protest the hundreds of dollars in fees.

“They’re just going to make you pay anyway,” Buikema concludes.

Buikema says some of his colleagues have expressed interest in also breaking away from the union, but are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Most teachers like to be safe and stay in their comfort zone,” Buikema said. “I don’t care about that.”

Buikema has remained an outspoken union critic, and wants to be seen as a true professional whose worth is solely determined by his performance in the classroom, and not by his ranking on the seniority chart.

That won’t truly happen until Michigan becomes a right to work state, and union membership is no longer compulsory. Until then, Buikema chooses to be a “non-member” and will pay $544.28 for the privilege.