Michigan’s police and fire unions have essentially lost their exemption from the state’s 2013 right-to-work laws in a Wednesday ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court’s conservative majority ruled that government workers can’t be forced to pay dues or fees to unions that represent them in collective bargaining — overturning a 41-year-old decision.
“This is a major blow for unions as institutions because it makes their job more difficult,” said Roland Zullo, director of the Center for Labor and Community Studies at University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus.
Wednesday Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, praised the ruling, stating workers shouldn’t be forced to support a union to pursue a career.
“Now people all across the country will have the same opportunity to make their own decisions and chart the course of their own future, no matter what political activities they support,” Leonard said in a statement.
Michigan Democrats and union groups condemned the decision, calling it an attack on workers.
“Working folks and their families are going to be the ones who suffer because of today’s decision,” said state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, in a statement. “We’ll continue to stick together and fight back, but today’s ruling is a very stark reminder of the power elections hold on the trajectory of our nation.”
The Supreme Court decision doesn’t change operations for most of the public sector unions in Michigan, due to the 2013 right-to-work laws. The laws prohibited new contracts from requiring workers to pay union dues or agency fees as a condition of employment.
Exempt from the laws were police, firefighter, dispatcher and emergency medical responder unions — up until Wednesday, when the Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision on the case of Mark Janus vs. AFSCME.
“In essence the Supreme Court decision nationalized right-to-work by what it has done,” said Frank Guido, general legal counsel for the Police Officers Association of Michigan.
Police and fire union officials said they were expecting the decision, based on President Donald Trump’s appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the High Court that gave conservatives the majority.
“It’s an attack on unions, just like when right-to-work was passed in Michigan,” said Mark Docherty, president of the 5,000-member Michigan Professional Firefighters Union. “It’s a shame.”
Docherty said he thinks the impact of the decision on fire union membership will be minimal.
“In the fire service, we have a brotherhood that stands united and stays loyal to each other,” Docherty said. “We’ll deal with it and remain strong.”
About 52,000 workers joined a union in 2017, growing union ranks above what they were in 2012 when right-to-work passed, according to the Michigan AFL-CIO.
“We’re disappointed with the Supreme Court decision but it’s certainly not the end of the world,” said Frank Guido, general counsel for the Police Officers Association of Michigan.
The big question for unions across the country is: will this allow non-members to freeload?
Not entirely, Guido said.
If workers who don’t pay union dues want services available from the union — like representation in a grievance case — the union can charge them directly, Guido said.
“Our method of operation will be changed,” Guido said.
Guido said he believes the services the POAM offers to members are enough to incentivize full dues payment.
“For those members that we have, which include non-police members in our organization, we have a nearly 97 percent retention rate,” Guido said. “This comes down to who provides good service. If you do, they will come and join you.”
The POAM has about 15,000 members, and generates hundreds of grievance filings a year from its 550 bargaining units across the state, Guido said. That results in about 20 active cases a month in court, Guido said.
Previously, police officers and firefighters in Michigan who didn’t want to pay union dues were asked to pay agency fees — also known as fair share fees — to cover the cost of certain union activities like bargaining and defending employees in court.
The Janus vs. AFSCME case challenged the legality of those agency fees under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court sided with Janus, ruling that the fees violate “the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”
The court’s assertion that any conversation between a union and a government body is inherently political may have longstanding impacts on unions, Zullo said. It may call a union’s duty to fairly represent all members into question, Zullo said.
Restrictions on what unions can bargain for may also change as a result, Zullo said.
“Because this kind of negotiation is now speech — can those laws still exist? Can Michigan still put restrictions on what a labor union can demand at the bargaining table?” Zullo said.