Court: Union fees not mandatory for state workers

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Lansing — The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that about 35,000 state employees should have never been subject to paying union fees, giving conservative supporters of the state’s 2013 right-to-work law a major victory.

In a 4-3 decision, the high court declared unconstitutional the Michigan Civil Service Commission’s longstanding rules authorizing labor unions to collect fees from state employees as a condition of employment.

The United Auto Workers, which represents and collects dues or fees from about 17,000 state employees, challenged whether the law applied to its members because their employment terms are set by the constitutionally autonomous Civil Service Commission.

“The Civil Service Commission lacked the constitutional authority to compel civil service employees to make involuntary financial contributions to subsidize the commission’s exercise of its constitutional duties and responsibilities,” Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. wrote in the majority opinion.

The Supreme Court’s ruling clears one of the last legal challenges to the validity of 2013 law, which makes financial support of a labor union optional.

The right-to-work law, which took effect in March 2013, prohibits union contracts from requiring “fair share” fees as a condition of employment to pay for the cost of collective bargaining agreements.

The Legislature exempted unionized Michigan State Police troopers and municipal police and firefighter unions from the right-to-work law.

Justices Stephen Markman, David Viviano and Brian Zahra joined Young in the majority opinion. All four are Republican-nominated justices.

In the majority opinion, Young likened the civil service commission’s rule authorizing union agency fees to a “quasi” form of taxation or appropriation, which is the exclusive power of the Legislature.

“The commission’s rules must yield to the constitution when there is no authority for it to impose such fees,” the chief justice wrote.

GOP-nominated Justice Mary Beth Kelly wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Bridget Mary McCormack and Richard Bernstein, who are both nominees of the Democratic Party.

Kelly said the majority’s decision breaks 75 years of legal precedent in which the bipartisan civil service commission has dictated the terms of employment for classified state workers.

“The majority’s conclusion upsets this traditional understanding of the scope of the commission’s constitutional authority to regulate the conditions of employment for employees in the classified state civil service,” she wrote.

Kelly warned that the majority could be setting a precedent that leaves other longstanding powers of the civil service commission subject to a constitutional challenge.

“The majority’s decision is an untested application of state constitutional law that may well yield unintended consequences,” Kelly wrote.

“This is another failed attempt by the unions to try to circumvent the right-to-work (law),” said Patrick Wright of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which argued commission-imposed union fees were akin to a tax.

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