LANSING – A group of unions filed a lawsuit in federal court on April 4, seeking to overturn one of the most blatant anti-union laws adopted so far by the Republican state Legislature.
The law is based on Michigan House Bill 4929, which prohibits the collection of union dues by a public school employer. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law on March 15, after it was adopted along party lines by majority Republicans in both the state House and Senate.
“The day this bill passed the Legislature, we wrote to Gov. Snyder outlining the constitutional problems with this unfair law,” said American Federation of Teachers-Michigan President David Hecker. “By signing this bill, he clearly ignored the fact that there is no rational reason for this to be law. The House Fiscal Agency says this won’t save money – in fact, it may cost some districts money to enact the change.”
The lawsuit challenging the law was filed in Michigan’s Eastern District federal court by The Michigan Education Association (MEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Michigan, AFSCME Council 25 and SEIU Local 517M.
The lawsuit asserts that the law violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, discriminating against school employees as retribution for political speech and treating school employees differently than other classifications of workers without reason.
Rep. Joe Haveman (R-Holland) sponsored HB 4929. He told the MIRS News Service: “I believe it's the right thing to do. These are taxpayer funds and they have to be used in the best way possible.”
While state Republicans said the law is a money-saver for taxpayers, the House Fiscal Agency’s analysis of the bill said it “would have no significant fiscal impact on school districts. Individual school districts would likely only see a minimal savings from this change. The process for payroll deductions for union dues and service fees is largely automated, so there is very little work school districts must go through on a regular basis.
“Moreover, some collective bargaining agreements provide that the union is to reimburse (at least in part) the school district for administering a payroll deduction. There could be some initial work, if the bill were enacted, to process that change, but any ongoing savings would be minimal.”
Union leaders involved in the lawsuit said it’s no coincidence that the law moved with unusual speed through the Legislature. The bill was originally introduced last fall, but was dormant until it was reintroduced March 7 – the day after union members in Michigan announced a petition drive that would prevent and overturn a number of anti-labor laws in Michigan.
“This bill sat for months in the Senate,” said MEA President Steven Cook. “It’s no coincidence that it passed within 24 hours of the launch of a worker coalition to amend our state constitution to protect collective bargaining rights. That just doesn’t pass the smell test. It is blatant retaliation against one group of workers who insist on standing up, making their voices heard and fighting back against the attacks on collective bargaining, public education and the middle class.”
Haveman told MIRS that he rejected the unions’ allegations that the bill unfairly targeted unions or was in retaliation for the petition drive. “Frankly, we don't do things that way,” he said. “If it were up to me we would have this across-the-board for all public employees. We just had to start somewhere.”
The new Michigan law might not pass the judicial smell test, either. At the behest of Michigan House Democrats, who filed a lawsuit in Ingham County Circuit Court, a judge on April 2 stripped immediate effect from HB 4929 and two other bills because of procedural problems stemming from the speed with which they were moved through the legislative process.
More importantly, on March 30, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the state could not enforce a ban on dues deduction that was part of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial “budget repair bill.” The constitutional grounds for that decision are similar to those brought forward in this lawsuit.
“Last year’s attacks on public workers in Wisconsin were the worst kind of partisan political power grabs and we’re thrilled for the workers in that state who’ve been vindicated through our federal justice system,” said Phil Thompson, executive vice president of SEIU Local 517M. “We’re proud to be taking Michigan’s version of those attacks to federal court in our state, where we are confident that truth and justice will win over politics and retribution.”