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Judge declines to stop rule requiring Michigan state employees to OK union dues annually

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Labor unions were dealt a setback when a federal court in Detroit rejected a request that it stop new rules approved by the Michigan Civil Service Commission that will cancel union members’ dues if not renewed every year.

While union officials have said the rules create “burdensome obstacles” and hinder strong unions, right-to-work advocates say the change protects employee freedom of choice.

A federal judge struck down a request by the  American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Service Employees International Union; and United Auto Workers.

In his ruling this week, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh said that the court did not find the process of an annual renewal "to be so burdensome as to rise to the level of irreparable harm, particularly in light of the fact that members may renew their authorizations at any time."

At issue is a new rule that requires state employees of Michigan to reauthorize their union membership each year; and it eliminates by 2022 agency fees, which are deducted from state worker paychecks if an employee does not have dues deducted. The smaller fees typically replace union dues to cover negotiating issues such as pay, benefits and grievances. The rule changes take effect Oct. 4.

"Hardworking state employees are deeply disappointed that the U.S. District Court has denied our injunction request to halt the Civil Service Commission’s immoral and unconstitutional rule changes," labor officials said in a joint statement released Friday by three unions that represent tens of thousands of state employees: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Service Employees International Union; and United Auto Workers.

"State employees are working day and night during the pandemic to support and protect the people of Michigan," the statement continued. "We are testing for COVID, distributing unemployment benefits, providing healthcare, caring for veterans, safeguarding our prison population and keeping our roads, food and water supply safe, among many other crucial duties. Through our unions, we advocate for our families, good jobs and quality public services for all Michiganders."

The unions did not say Friday what their next steps might be. 

"Regardless of this decision, or the final outcome of the case, we will not let the anti-worker rules of an unelected and unaccountable Commission stop our members from organizing and fighting for fair contracts, decent wages, and safe workplaces," the union said in its statement.

So-called right-to-work advocates say the rule helps ensure that the state is not deducting dues from any state employee who has not clearly waived his or her First Amendment rights.

“The District Court was absolutely right in rejecting union officials’ attempt to block the Civil Service Commission’s commonsense rule to ensure the state is not deducting union dues from public employees in violation of their First Amendment rights," said National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation President Mark Mix. "As pointed out in our amicus brief to the court, not only are the union lawyers’ arguments wrong on the merits of the issue, but a recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision specifically forecloses their ability to even bring this lawsuit.”

The three labor unions had filed the federal lawsuit in September, saying that the changes the commission approved in July violate the First Amendment right to freedom of association. The rules, they said make it "significantly more difficult for employees to maintain their union membership in good standing."

The unions had asked the judge to rule the change unconstitutional, issue a temporary halt and order the commission to reimburse the unions for their legal fees.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN