The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, January 23, 2015

Legality of RTW for public employees goes before Supreme Court

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING – Arguments were heard Jan. 13 before the Michigan Supreme Court as part of organized labor’s first major attempt to overturn the state’s right-to-work laws.

At issue: is it under the Michigan Legislature’s authority to adopt a right-to-work law for most public employees, as it did in December 2012? Or is such an action legally under the Michigan Civil Service Commission’s rulemaking authority, potentially voiding the state’s right-to-work law for public employees?

The Michigan Supreme Court agreed a year ago to take up the case, after several unions representing the public workers, including the UAW, brought a case that maintained that the Michigan Constitution specifically sets up the state Civil Service Commission, not the Legislature, as the ultimate authority on collective bargaining matters.

Union attorney William Wertheimer said at the Jan. 13 hearing that, in giving the commission the authority to set working conditions, “It’s pretty clear that the framers” of the state constitution, “… thought that the commission would handle collective bargaining as it relates to” state employees. “The Legislature is not allowed to mettle in the Civil Service Commission,” Wertheimer said.

State Assistant Attorney General Ann Sherman, as reported by the Lansing State Journal, argued the Civil Service Commission has the authority to establish only the “conditions that affect your daily work life,” which she said “doesn’t require the involvement of a collective bargaining unit.”

Journalists attending the hearing said the justices grilled both sides. The state Legislature adopted separate right-to-work laws for both public and private workers in December 2012. Right-to-work allows employees to opt out of paying union dues, but still enjoy the benefits, like higher wages and better working conditions, of a collectively bargained contract.

The justices’ decision on right-to-work would affect the more than 34,316 state employees represented by a union, nearly three-quarters of the state’s workforce – but it would have no affect on private industry union members like those in the building trades.

A ruling on the case could come at any time.