LANSING – Gov. Rick Snyder did an end-around on any potential for labor unions to win a lower-court injunction against the state’s new right-to-work law. On Jan. 28, Snyder went directly to the Michigan Supreme Court and asked it to rule on whether Public Acts 348 and 349 impact state employee contracts, and whether the new RTW laws would survive as-yet-unfiled legal cases brought by unions in lower courts.
In a letter to Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young, Jr., Snyder asked:
*Whether the public sector right-to-work law applies to 35,000 unionized state workers. Historically the Michigan Civil Service Commission has had autonomy to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with labor unions. “This is a very time-sensitive question,” Snyder wrote. “It is essential that all parties to the negotiations know definitively whether the new contracts must comply with Public Act 349 before those negotiations commence roughly five months from now.”
*Whether the new right-to-work laws violate the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment , which allows equal protection to all under the law. Snyder acknowledged in his letter that “the legislation does not apply to all employees in public or private sector bargaining units.”
In fact, Republican lawmakers “carved out” the Michigan State Police officers as well as unionized police and firefighters in local communities from being bound by the right-to-work legislation. Critics blasted the RTW exemption by Republican lawmakers as a political gift to win police and firefighter votes. The GOP lawmakers justified that move by citing Michigan Public Act 312 of 1969, which mandates binding arbitration when contract impasses occur, a legal move that places cops and firefighters in a category unto their own.
The legal question is perhaps labor’s strongest argument for getting RTW overturned: does that existing Act 312 exemption create a sufficient precedent that it allows different treatment of police and firefighters from other union workers, moving them out from under the Constitution’s equal protection clause?
The governor’s decision to take the case directly to the state Supreme Court is unusual and blatantly self-serving, but it’s not unprecedented. Labor unions were certain to challenge the RTW law in court, and their first stop would undoubtedly have been a county circuit court that has been historically made more worker-friendly rulings. An injunction at that court, and an agreeable appeals court ruling, could have delayed RTW implementation for months.
Ultimately, the smart money will be on the Michigan Supreme Court agreeing with Snyder and Republican lawmakers on RTW – the high court will soon have a 5-2 conservative majority.
“I think it’s obvious that the main purpose of Snyder’s move was to avoid a lower court injunction,” said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council attorney John Canzano. “And unfortunately, Snyder is probably going to get the answers that he wants from the state Supreme Court.”
Zack Pohl, executive director of Progress Michigan, said the legal move by Snyder is the latest example of his “political overreach” on this issue.
“First he bypasses the normal committee processes and signs this bill behind closed doors and under the cover of darkness,” Pohl said. “Now he’s trying to bypass the legal process by getting a Republican Supreme Court to rubber-stamp this so-called ‘Right to Work’ law that was bought and paid for by corporate special interests.”