Unions win injunction blocking Michigan fundraising law

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Michigan unions have won a preliminary injunction to block the state from enforcing a new political fundraising payroll deduction law that a federal judge deemed a form of “viewpoint discrimination.”

U.S. District Judge Linda A. Parker on Thursday ruled unions were likely to succeed on First Amendment arguments in their lawsuit challenging the state law, which prohibits companies from collecting and transferring voluntary contributions to unions’ political action funds.

“In short, the Court finds that by enacting PA 269, Michigan has placed an obstacle — bolstered by the threat of a felony charge — in the path of organizations’ and employees’ efforts to solicit and raise funds necessary to engage in political speech,” wrote Parker, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Parker said the law does “not apply evenhandedly” because it allows a company to make employee payroll deductions for contributions to a nonprofit group of which it is a member, such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, but not a union.

The Michigan State AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Michigan State Utility Workers Council and two individual union members sued the state in May, fighting a law that limited their ability to raise funds for political purposes in the current and future election cycles.

Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature approved the heavily revised bill in late December despite complaints from Democrats, who said they had not had time to read the full language. The bill ballooned from 12 pages to 53 pages under a substitute introduced by Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed the legislation Dec. 31.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, which fought the requested injunction, argued that payroll deductions should not be considered a form of speech protected under the U.S. Constitution.

The law is not a viewpoint-based regulation, Schuette’s office said in a court filing, because “it does not prevent any unions or its members from association with each other or from soliciting funds and they are free to speak as they wish.”

It is the second preliminary injunction from a federal judge against a provision of the law, which also prohibited local government officials from distributing information about ballot proposals, a restriction dubbed a “gag order” by critics.

U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara granted an injunction barring enforcement of that portion of the law after a lawsuit from local officials.

Parker, who served as director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said unions are likely to win on contract claims over the payroll deduction provision even if they do not prevail on free speech grounds.

“We’re very pleased with the court’s ruling in this case,” AFL-CIO attorney Andy Nickelhoff said in a statement. “This is a big win for working people.”