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School Districts Must Continue to Collect Union Dues

July 11, 2012

A federal district court judge recently enjoined the Michigan Employment Relations Commission ("MERC") from enforcing PA 53, which prohibited school districts from assisting a union in collecting union dues and service fees. Bailey, et al v Callaghan, 12-CV-11504 (June 11, 2012).

The Michigan Education Association ("MEA") and its union affiliates challenged the law on Equal Protection and First Amendment grounds. The unions asserted that the law was enacted in retaliation for the unions' opposition to the passage of several legislative bills that limited the scope of collective bargaining for teachers and for recall efforts aimed at several legislators. The unions maintained that since the law treated public school employees different than other public employees they were denied equal protection. Likewise, the unions claimed that the law, as applied, would burden the speech of public school employees, but not other public employees.

In issuing its preliminary injunction, the court analyzed the four factors for issuance of a preliminary injunction. The court concluded that the union had a likelihood of success on the merits even though the defendants argued that the law would save money, promote union accountability and check union power. The court noted that the first two reasons had nothing to do with the unions, and that the Legislative Analysis for the Bill, "would have no significant fiscal impact on school districts because fee deductions are usually automated and some collective bargaining agreements require the union to reimburse the school district for payroll deductions." Further, the court found that the defendants were unable to show that the Act would result in cost savings to the districts.

The court also noted that the decision to have union dues withdrawn from one's paycheck is voluntary. Thus, a school employee would not be required to have union dues automatically deducted.   Nor would the Act promote union independence. The court opined that the attempt to undercut union power and the legislative history of the law strongly supported the MEA's argument that the real motive for the legislation was to "suppress an unpopular group." The court concluded that the unions were likely to prevail on the merits of their equal protection claim since the defendants failed to provide a rational justification for the law, or explain why the law singled out school unions but did not apply to other public employee unions.

As to the First Amendment claim, the court employed the strict level scrutiny test and concluded that the Act, by its application, would burden speech for school unions alone. According to the court, the unions would have to divert resources designated for member advocacy and representation to the collection of dues in order to keep the unions' speech efforts alive. By enacting the law, the court found that the defendants were targeting only one viewpoint and one set of speakers for discrimination, thus, unduly burdening speech for only public school employees.

The court also found that the unions were likely to suffer irreparable injury absent the injunction because the "reduction of union dues will hamper the [u]nions' activities and require resources to be redirected to collecting membership dues." In addition, the court found that the balance of harm to the public or others did not outweigh the harm to the unions constitutional rights without redress. Since the unions met the four elements for injunctive relief, the federal court judge immediately enjoined the enforcement of PA 53.

Unless and until the injunction is lifted, PA 53 is unenforceable. Therefore, school districts must continue the status quo relative to union dues deductions. School district administrators should contact their Clark Hill attorney for further information regarding the impact of the court's decision on their district.

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