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Employee Must Pay Union Dues If the Employee Fails to Timely Revoke Dues Checkoff Agreement

August 23, 2017

On August 10, 2017, the Michigan Court of Appeals finally delivered an opinion on the lawfulness of so called "window periods" for revoking union dues obligations (as opposed to union membership) for Michigan public sector employees. The court, in an unpublished opinion (Teamsters Local 214 v Pauline Beutler), ruled that the authorization card signed by Ms. Beutler contained language which "clearly, explicitly, and unmistakably" contained an obligation for her to pay union dues for a specified period, regardless of her membership status in the union, and therefore, constituted "a binding waiver of her right to discontinue her financial support of the union at will."

Ms. Beutler was a bus driver for the Livingston Educational Service Agency. Upon joining the union, Ms. Beutler signed an application for membership and dues payment authorization that recited that it was "voluntary and . . . not conditioned on . . . present or future membership in the union." The application authorized Ms. Beutler's employer to deduct her monthly union dues from her wages, and further provided as follows:

"This authorization and assignment shall be irrevocable for the term of the applicable contract between the union and the employer or for one year, whichever is the lesser, and shall automatically renew itself for successive yearly or applicable contract periods thereafter, whichever is lesser, unless I give written notice to the company and the union at least sixty (60) days, but not more than seventy-five (75) days before any periodic renewal date of this authorization and assignment of my desire to revoke same."

In 2013, Ms. Beutler sent a letter to the union attempting to revoke her union dues obligation. The letter was sent outside the "window period" set forth in the authorization (the 60-75 day period). The union refused to honor the revocation stating that it was "a separate independent contract" and that it did not now allow her to revoke her "financial obligation at this time." Ms. Beutler filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union.

The Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) held that Ms. Beutler's letter was sufficient upon receipt for her to resign her membership in the union, but that her obligation to continue paying union dues extended until the next resignation window.

The court agreed. The court stated that it has previously determined that waivers of statutory rights must be "clear and unambiguous." Notably in Saginaw Education Association v Eady-Miskiewicz (2017), the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed with the MERC that a mere union bylaw or constitution provision purporting to limit the right to resign or financially support the union does not constitute a sufficiently clear and unambiguous waiver of the right to refrain from union affiliation and financial support. But, it did leave open the possibility that an employee could waive the right to discontinue financially supporting if the language was sufficiently clear, explicit, and unmistakable.

In Teamsters 214 v Beutler, the court and MERC gave us their first look at what they consider to be a clear and unmistakable statutory waiver.

Finally, for public school employers who believe this is not an issue for your employees due to 2012 PA 53, think again. Ms. Beutler did work for a school district after the effective date of 2012 PA 53. The court agreed with the MERC that Act 53 changed the obligations of public school employers only with respect to the deduction of dues and agency fees from employee paychecks. "Public school employers may no longer agree to withhold money from the paychecks of their employees for the purpose of providing such funds to unions in payment of the employees' dues or agency fee obligations. However, Act 53 did not alter the obligation of employees to pay dues pursuant to a lawful agreement. If a public school employee has a lawful obligation to pay union dues, that obligation was not changed by Act 53."

Although deduction from paychecks is not available to the public school unions, the court completed its analysis noting that the unions can enforce such contractual dues obligations "by whatever lawful means remain."

If you have any questions about the decision, or how to proceed in this evolving area of the law, please contact Steve Girard or another member of Clark Hill's Labor and Employment Practice Group.

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