Opinion: Court shuts down union attack on workers' freedom

Steve Delie

In a victory for workers’ rights, an ill-fated attempt by unions to limit worker freedom has been soundly rebuffed.

Last month, the UAW, SEIU, AFL-CIO and Michigan State Employees Association (MSEA) jointly filed suit challenging the Michigan Civil Service Commission’s rule requiring the state’s employees to annually opt-in to union membership. That lawsuit included a request for an injunction to prevent those rules from going into effect until the lawsuit was decided. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has now denied that request, suggesting the unions’ case has very little chance of success.

The rules the unions challenged were implemented in July of this year. Under the prior rule, unions were only required to get authorization for dues deductions once in that employee’s career, and was not required to inform employees if their rights changed. As an example, employees who authorized dues deductions because they were required to prior to the passage of right-to-work would still be considered as consenting to dues deductions.

The Court struck down the unions' request for injunction concerning a rule requiring annual consent to dues deductions, Delie writes.

The rule amendment remedies this by requiring annual consent to dues deductions. Employees will also be given an annual notice that describes their labor rights to ensure that workers understand their rights before waiving them. That includes notice of a worker’s right to join or refuse to join a union, the right to not be retaliated against for not joining, and the union’s duty to represent nonmembers fairly.

In short, the new rule promotes workers’ freedom to choose whether to contribute to a union, and makes sure that Michigan’s civil service workers are fully informed of their First Amendment rights. Despite the fact these rules benefit workers by providing them with a full, free and fair opportunity to choose whether to support a union, the unions chose to sue to prevent them from being implemented.

The unions challenged the amended rules by arguing they unconstitutionally interfered with collective bargaining agreements and violated the unions’ First Amendment rights. The court rejected both arguments.

In reviewing the unions’ contract clause claim, the court recognized that binding precedent foreclosed the possibility of relief for the unions. The same is true of the claim that requiring workers to annually affirm their financial support of a union interfered with the unions’ First Amendment rights.

How the unions were able to make this argument is a bit baffling, given that the rules simply require employees to be informed of their First Amendment rights and annually agree to pay dues.

The Eastern District of Michigan was similarly skeptical. The court also further found that the unions could not show that the rules caused irreparable harm to the membership. As of Sept. 29, the court observed, 82% of union members had already renewed their authorizations for dues deductions. It also noted that employees who fail to opt in before the Oct. 4 deadline could renew anytime after that date.

As a result of these findings, any Michigan Civil Service employees who have not authorized dues deductions by Oct. 4 will be automatically exempted from further deductions. As of Oct. 6, 87% percent of employees had renewed their authorizations.

This result is hardly surprising given the flaws in the unions’ case, but it is a welcome development for Michigan’s workers and for worker freedom. Although this order does not dismiss the unions’ case, it does signal that the case is likely to be dismissed in the very near future. Given the timelines provided in the Michigan Court Rules, a final resolution to this case (assuming the unions do not appeal) can be expected by mid-November.

In the meantime, Michigan’s civil service workers will finally be given the opportunity to make an informed choice about deductions from their paychecks.

Steve Delie is the director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center.