LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan's largest teachers' union should allow members to resign at any time and stop enforcing an annual one-month opt-out window, a state labor judge ruled, relying on the state right-to-work law that took effect last year.
The administrative law judge, Julia Stern, recommended Tuesday that the Republican-controlled Employment Relations Commission order the Michigan Education Association to no longer limit school employees to leaving the union solely in August of each year. She said the law that took effect last year incorporated a federal law interpreted to give public employees the ability to leave their union anytime.
Conservative legal groups and union lawyers learned of Stern's decision Wednesday night.
"Judge Stern's ruling goes along with our belief that teachers are professionals and not piggybanks for the MEA," Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, told The Associated Press.
The union could not immediately be reached for comment early Thursday morning. But appeals are likely, first with the commission - controlled 2-1 by Republican appointees - and then the state appeals court and ultimately the Michigan Supreme Court. The commission usually follows judges' recommendations.
"We probably have a couple years more of this to go," Wright said.
The decision followed an intense month of lobbying by organized labor and pro-business groups to persuade teachers to leave or stay in the school workers' association, in the first real test of the right-to-work law. The union has 112,000 active members and is the state's largest public-sector union.
A significant number of dropouts would deliver a financial blow to the union. Previously, employees in union-covered jobs were required to pay fees for bargaining and other services even if they did not want to belong.
The ruling directly affects seven employees in four school districts who complained that they were unable to drop their membership after missing a little-known window in 2013. If the decision stands, it could have broader implications for other unions.
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation filed lawsuits and labor complaints on behalf of the teachers, accusing the union of not publicizing the opt-out period and threatening to send members who unsuccessfully tried to leave in other months to collections for not paying their dues.
Union leaders have defended the union, saying the job of a membership association is not to help people resign and contending that the annual monthlong window is essential for planning and budgeting.
The judge agreed with the reasoning for the window but said the law changed with the passage of the right-to-work measure. Stern dismissed allegations that the union violated state labor law by trying to send members to collections for not paying dues. She also said unions have no duty to educate their members about the right-to-work changes.
About 1,500, or 1 percent, of active members left in the August 2013 window. Another 8,000 stopped paying dues last school year after another Republican-written law - which ended dues deductions from school employees' paychecks - took effect.
The union said last month that "several thousand" have resumed paying dues and that it may make public how many members opted out this year, though it is under no obligation to do so.