LANSING - Legal efforts to overturn the state's right-to-work laws have just about run their course.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled on July 29 that some 36,000 state employees working under a collective bargaining agreement are in fact subject to a 2012 right-to-work law. Labor unions argued that the state Civil Service Commission, not the state Legislature, has had historical jurisdiction over the setting of employment conditions for civil servants, but the Supreme Court disagreed in a 4-3 ruling.
“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 ruling means that the public employee members aren't compelled to pay any dues to support the operations of their union. They previously could opt out of paying a portion of their dues payment and only to pay for their share of the cost of negotiating their contract - but this ruling now allows those "free riders" to be completely free.
Supporting the majority in the ruling were justices Young, Stephen Markman, Brian Zahra and David Viviano - all Republican-appointed. Dissenting were one Republican-nominated justice, Mary Beth Kelly, who joined the two Democratic nominees, justices Bridget McCormack and Richard Bernstein.
A coalition of unions, led by the UAW, argued that the Michigan Constitution gives the Civil Service Commission power to "regulate all conditions of employment," which should supercede the state's right-to-work laws.
Justice Young took the stance that the Civil Service Commission itself benefits from allowing the collection of union dues "to fund its administrative operations in pursuit of those duties." But Justice Kelly, writing for the dissent, said such fees are paid by employees "directly to their exclusive representative for the costs associated with representation during the collective bargaining process and while a collective bargaining agreement is operable."
Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council attorney John Canzano, who was not involved in this case, said there was a consensus by labor attorneys who looked at this case before it went to court that the state Constitution and some 50 years of legal precedent gave the state Civil Service Commission regulatory jurisdiction in most public employee bargaining cases.
"Everyone thought it was a ridiculous argument, that the right-to-work law didn't apply to state civil servants," he said. "The Supreme Court felt otherwise."
In December 2012, the Republican-dominated state Legislature actually adopted two right-to-work laws, one for private workers like those in the building trades and one for public workers, like janitors and clerks. At the time, the Legislature carved out exemptions for the Michigan State Police troopers and local municipal police and firefighter unions from the right-to-work law, which the rest of organized labor charged was an attempt by the GOP to curry favor with those unions.