An important policy reversal in Lansing in late April passed almost unnoticed in the Michigan media, but it’s bad news for workers in state government. For engineering this turning back of the clock, organized labor and its allies in the Granholm administration should be ashamed and embarrassed.
To understand what happened, one must first understand what the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on the issue of the proper use by government employee unions of the compulsory dues imposed on their members. Forcing government employees to financially support their unions’ political activities, the Court ruled in 1977, was a violation of their right to freedom of speech. In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Court held that it was a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments for a government employee union to use the fees collected from a nonmember employee for political and ideological purposes unrelated to collective bargaining to which the nonmember objected.
Another Supreme Court decision, Chicago Teachers Local 1 v. Hudson, established the ground rules for determining the appropriate fee payments of objecting nonmembers by imposing procedural requirements on the union:
The constitutional requirements for the Union’s collection of agency fees include an adequate explanation of the basis for the fees, a reasonably prompt opportunity to challenge the amount of the fee before an impartial decision maker, and an escrow for the amounts reasonably in dispute while such challenges are pending.
In another U.S. Supreme Court ruling that had its origins in Michigan, the Court found in favor of James Lehnert, a professor at Ferris State University and a member of the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest union of cooks, custodians, bus drivers, and teachers. The MEA maintained that only 20 percent of Lehnert’s union payments went to its political and non-bargaining efforts, but the Court found that the figure was closer to 90 percent. Sadly, unions won’t voluntarily notify their members of these rulings or their rights, and most politicians have been afraid to follow up the Supreme Court’s rulings by actually enforcing them.
How does a union member ultimately exercise his rights under the Abood, Hudson, and Lehnert decisions? By resigning from the union, and paying an "agency fee" that represents union dues minus what the union spends on political and ideological matters unrelated to collective bargaining.
In the mid-90s, the Michigan Civil Service Commission adopted a rule that actually made a pioneering but modest attempt at enforcing these important rights of workers affirmed by the Supreme Court. Spurred on by Commission member Robert Hunter, then a labor attorney with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Commission promulgated Rule 6-7.5, entitled "Annual Notice of Rights." It required the state personnel director to "annually give written notice" to employees of Michigan state government that they indeed have the right to resign from their unions if they wish to avoid paying compulsory dues for political and ideological causes they may not agree with.
Why was such written notice of these worker rights important? Because no one, least of all the highly-paid hierarchies of organized labor, ever tells workers they have such rights. Workers are routinely advised by their unions to simply pay up, and pressures are sometimes brought to bear on those who don’t quietly do so.
But on April 29, 2004, the Michigan Civil Service Commission approved new regulations that gutted Rule 6-7.5. The Granholm Administration, through its State Employer David Fink, pressed the Commission to drop the annual notice requirement. As the Commission voted to blind itself to the rights of the employees it oversees, Fink praised the decision because, in his words, "it showed a willingness to embrace the unions we haven’t seen here in a long time." Note the choice of words: "embrace the unions," not "embrace the workers."
So the men and women who work for the taxpayers of Michigan will not be told of their rights under Abood, Hudson, and Lehnert, at least not by their union or their employer. Now where do you suppose such pressure originated? From rank-and-file workers demanding to be kept in the dark, or from the union hierarchies who collect and spend those workers’ dues?
Governor Granholm is fond of declaring that in her administration, "everybody has a place at the table." But now we know that the list of invited guests is actually much less inclusive. When it comes to the rights of state workers, the seats at the table are for those who run the unions.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute.