Whitmer blasts plan for new state employee union rules

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Civil Service Commission is considering rule changes to the way union dues are collected among state employees, a proposal that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer excoriated Friday but a supporter argued is allowed under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. 

The proposed rules released Friday would require state workers falling under the jurisdiction of the Civil Service Commission to reauthorize each year union dues deducted from their pay checks. The union dues currently are deducted with consent from an employee that can be authorized or revoked through a self-service portal in the state's human resources system.

The rules also would eliminate by 2022 “agency fees,” a smaller fee deducted from state worker paychecks if an employee does not authorize dues deductions. After a change in 2016 those fees also required employee authorization. The smaller fees also go to the union for negotiating pay, benefits grievances and other services.

Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, left, lauds the work of Gov. Rick Snyder and countless others in solidifying Detroit’s prospects.

“This simply informs them of their rights every year; this is not anti-union, it is entirely pro-worker,” said Jase Bolger, the former Republican House speaker who helped oversee passage of the state's right-to-work law. Bolger was appointed to the Michigan Civil Service Commission in 2016 by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder.

Michigan’s right-to-work law, which took effect in 2013, prohibited mandatory union dues or fees as a condition of employment.

Whitmer blasted the proposed rules, calling them a “direct assault on our hard-working state employees.” She called on the four-member commission to reject the proposal. 

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic and the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes, and the notion that the Civil Service Commission would choose this moment to take power away from our health care workers, road repair workers, corrections officers, and unemployment call center employees is unthinkable,” the Democratic governor said. “This action will make it harder for these front-line workers to negotiate together for strong wages, health care and a secure retirement.”

A spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

Bolger said he wasn’t surprised by Whitmer’s reaction to the proposed rules, noting her opposition to the right-to-work law in 2012.  

“She led protests then. I’m not sure if she’ll lead protests now,” Bolger said.

The commission, which is independent from the governor, could consider the new rules as early as its next meeting on July 15.

The bipartisan commission’s four members are all Snyder appointees. Bolger and former Michigan Chamber of Commerce President James Barrett are Republicans while Michigan State Police retiree Jeff Steffel and former state personnel director Janet McClelland are independents.  

Bolger argued the proposed changes are a further implementation of the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus vs. ASFCME, when the high court ruled mandatory union fees required of state workers were an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. 

“Janus says that the consent should be knowingly and freely given,” Bolger said. “Janus didn’t’ comment on the frequency of that."

The commission in 2019 put in place similar reforms that allowed state employees to grant or withdraw authorization at any time and centralized due and fee authorization, according to a notice the commission sent out Friday. 

“But since Janus, there’ve been questions asked,” Bolger said. “Are we in compliance with not just the letter of it but the spirit of it?”

In the notice circulated Friday, officials noted some employees authorized due withdrawals decades ago before the Janus decision, and some authorized the due withdrawals while they were still a legal requirement before the right-to-work law. 

“Ongoing deduction of fees based on old authorizations is problematic,” the notice said.

Republican former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof proposed a similar plan during the Legislature’s 2018 lame duck session, in which public employees would have to decide every two years whether they wanted to maintain or disband their unions.