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Unions sue state for union rule changes they call 'anti-worker'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Several unions are suing the state of Michigan to challenge new union rules approved in July, arguing the change "substantially impairs" the collective bargaining agreements already in place "without any legitimate public purpose."

The federal lawsuit was filed ahead of Labor Day by groups that include the United Auto Workers union, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is asking the court to stop the rules approved 3-1 by the Michigan Civil Service Commission on the grounds that they violate the First Amendment right to freedom of association. 

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

The suit filed in the Eastern District of Michigan asks the judge to declare the rule change unconstitutional, issue a temporary halt to the changes and order the commission to reimburse the unions for their legal fees. The Eastern District has a majority of judges appointed by Democratic presidents. 

"This is part of a long-running campaign against working families in Michigan and across the country, pushed by billionaire-backed anti-worker groups," the unions said in a statement.

"These constitutional violations are particularly galling at a time when these hardworking public workers are coping with providing service to all Michiganders during the COVID-19 crisis," the groups said.

The rules would require Michigan employees to reauthorize their union membership each year and eliminated by 2022 "agency fees," which are deducted from state worker paychecks if an employee does not authorize due deductions. The smaller fees usually take the place of union dues for negotiating issues such as pay, grievances and benefits. 

The commission, made up of four appointees of Republican former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, includes Republican former Speaker of the House Jase Bolger; former Michigan Chamber of Commerce President James Barrett, a Republican and board member at the free-market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy; Michigan State Police retiree Jeff Steffel, an independent; and former state personnel director Janet McClelland, an independent. 

Under the rule changes, starting Oct. 4, a union member's dues withdrawal authorization will expire at the start of the first full pay period each fiscal year unless reauthorized. Employees who have reauthorized since Oct. 1, 2019, will not be required to do so again before Oct. 3, 2021. 

Agency fees will be barred from payroll deduction Jan. 1, 2022. 

Bolger had argued the policy codifies state law in light of the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME, when the high court ruled that mandatory union fees required of state workers were an unconstitutional violation of free speech. 

But the unions argued in their suit that the rule change makes it "significantly more difficult for employees to maintain their union membership in good standing" and almost impossible for union leadership to educate members on or assist with the change.

"There is no legally supportable reason for this change in the commission rules" other than "hostility towards unions," the suit said. 

All of the existing collective bargaining agreements contain language requiring the state to make payroll deductions if the employees authorized as much, and the contracts allow employees to revoke that deduction at any time, the suit said.  

"Putting aside the lack of a significant public purpose for the rule change, the commission's compressed timetable for immediate implementation of the rule change is patently unreasonable and oppressive," the suit said, noting the rule change left the unions about 11 weeks to educate 25,000 employees on the change before Oct. 4.