Few things mobilize unions more than the prospect of passage of a Right to Work law in a given state. This reality of labor politics also applies to the aftermath. Just hours ago, a group of unions filed an appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court to overturn an August 15 ruling by a state Court of Appeals that public-sector Right to Work legislation, passed in December, applies to state civil service employees. That decision, for the time being, freed roughly 36,000 Michigan state government workers from worrying about losing their jobs because they refuse to pay financial tribute to a union. The legislation, which consists of a separate law each for the private and public sector, came about after the defeat last November of a ballot measure, Proposal 2, to amend the state constitution to grant unions enormous veto power over laws they don’t like. Labor officials believe they have an airtight case, but the reality says otherwise.
Right to Work laws, as Union Corruption Update has explained on several occasions, give individual workers at a unionized workplace the right to opt out of paying full dues or (for nonmembers) partial dues, also known as “agency fees.” The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 authorizes a union, as part of a private-sector collective bargaining agreement, to commit an employer to fire any employee who refuses to pay dues or fees to the union. Over the decades, this provision has been extended to the public sector in any number of states. Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, however, does authorize states to ban this practice. These bans are known as “Right to Work” laws. Union officials bitterly oppose this brake on their monopoly power. And they and their mainly Democratic Party supporters can be counted on to fight such laws wherever their passage, or their taking effect, appears imminent. After Oklahoma voters in September 2001, by 54-46 percent, approved a Right to Work ballot initiative, Question 695, union officials spent two years in the courts, unsuccessfully, trying to overturn the result. However slowly, the Right to Work cause has continued forward. By early last fall, 23 states had enacted their own law. Indiana early in 2012 was the most recent addition to the fold.
Indiana, however, was an anomaly among Great Lakes states. The region long had been strong union territory. Michigan, the birthplace of modern labor activism during the 1930s, was an especially high hurdle for Right to Work activists. To many, the thought of such a law there seemed incomprehensible. But the recession of 2008-09 and its aftermath changed the game. The state was reeling from high unemployment and widening budget deficits. And officials last year only had to look over its southern border to Indiana to see how that state’s new Right to Work law was triggering business development. By last fall, Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder, and especially certain Republicans in the GOP-majority legislature, believed the time for Right to Work had come. Their confidence was buoyed by the defeat by Michigan voters in November of the above-mentioned Proposal 2 by a 57-to-43 percent margin.
What emerged, and in short order, were two Right to Work bills, one for the private sector and one for the public sector. As a compromise, the public-sector measure exempted police and firefighters unions from coverage. On December 6, the Michigan Senate, mainly along party lines, passed the private-sector bill by 22-16 and the public-sector bill by 22-4. Five days later, on December 11, the House of Representatives passed the measures by respective 58-52 and 58-51 margins. Governor Snyder promptly signed each bill, which took effect in March. As a conciliatory gesture, he remarked: “This isn’t about us versus them. This is about Michiganders.”
Union leaders and their political allies didn’t think so. They responded with a mix of lament, bluster and violence. “The sleeping tiger is awake,” announced Michigan AFL-CIO Michigan Chapter President Karla Swift. “We have 2014 as a goal to shift out and win justice.” UAW Local 600 President Bernard Ricke declared: “It’s an attack on working families, and we’re gonna be here. We’re not gonna stand for it.” Democratic State Rep. Douglas Geiss, stated during floor debate: “There will be blood. I really wish we had not gone here…I do not see solace. I do not see peace.” Michigan Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer described herself as “livid.” During the days leading up to the votes, a crowd of union partisans, eventually growing to 10,000 persons, descended on the state capital of Lansing to express their opposition. Some used more than words. One protestor landed some sucker punches against Fox News contributor Steven Crowder. Several union members and/or supporters used knives to slash a tent granted to Americans for Prosperity’s Michigan chapter and then trampled on the tarp with people inside. And two men were arrested after forcing their way into a building that housed several of the governor’s offices. It was enough to make their militant union brethren next door in Wisconsin downright proud.
Once these burning and not necessarily lawful passions subsided, the thrust of labor opposition, as in Wisconsin nearly two years earlier, took the form of legal action. And that came soon enough. This February, the month even before either law took effect, a coalition of unions representing about 90 percent of the State of Michigan’s work force filed suit in the state Court of Appeals to invalidate the public-sector law, known as Public Act 349. The complaint argued that the law’s work rules already were covered by the state’s bipartisan Civil Service Commission (CSC). Indeed, early last December, before passage, the unions unsuccessfully tried to block the legislation on procedural grounds. On August 15, the court issued its ruling: The law was constitutional and fully effective. Writing for the 2-1 majority, Appeals Judges Henry Saad and Pat Donofrio wrote in a 21-page opinion: “Michigan case law fully supports the principle that the Legislature, as the policy-making branch of government, has the power to pass labor laws of general applicability that also apply to classified civil service employees…We hold that the (Right to Work) law is constitutional as applied to classified civil service positions in Michigan.” In her dissent, Appeals Judge Elizabeth Gleicher wrote: “The CSC has determined that agency fees foster harmonious labor relations. In my view, neither the majority nor the Legislature may cast aside the CSC’s choice based on an alternate political preference.”
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette was elated. “Today, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled the freedom to work constitutional – a great opportunity for the hardworking men and women of Michigan,” he said. “As the law is written, public-sector employees will receive the same freedoms and choices as private-sector employees. Everyone will be treated equally.” Union leaders saw things much differently. United Auto Workers Vice-President Cindy Estrada, who heads the union’s public-sector department, stated: “We are deeply disappointed by the court’s ruling, which, if it stands, will undermine Michigan’s constitutional protections for state workers. The Civil Service Commission has sole jurisdiction over state employees’ conditions of employment under the state constitution, and this decision abrogates the commission’s authority.” Ken Moore, president of the Michigan State Employees Association, expressed a similar view, as did Phil Patrick, executive vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 517M, which represents about 4,000 Michigan state employees.
The case is now headed for the Michigan Supreme Court. UAW Local 6000, which represents about 17,000 employees, or nearly half the state civil service work force, had indicated on August 27 via e-mail its intent to appeal. Attorneys made it official today, filing requisite paperwork on behalf of several unions. Organized labor, as before, plans to argue that the Right to Work law unconstitutionally supplants CSC authority. “The Civil Service Commission in Michigan provides much-needed protections for state workers by ensuring they are not unfairly impacted by the political whims of the legislature and the governor,” said Mel Grieshaber, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization. This statement is off base. Public Act 349 provides much-needed protections, all right – to individual workers who choose not to pay dues or agency fees to a union. And it doesn’t remove any collective bargaining rights. Should the Michigan Supreme Court grant legal standing to the plaintiffs, it ought to conclude as much.