Union members throughout Michigan suffered a setback this summer when Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Paula Manderfield ruled that she did not have jurisdiction in a dispute over the proper method for ratifying a union contract. The decision, while defensible, puts union members at a disadvantage when union officials break the terms of union charters and bylaws.

The Administrative Professionals Association, an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association union, represents professional non-teaching staff at Michigan State University. A group of APA members, concerned about irregularities in the APA’s operations, formed the APA Watch Group. Among the Watch Group’s concerns was a contract ratification vote conducted over the internet, even though a strong argument can be made that the APA’s own charter calls for paper ballots.

The Watch Group brought the matter before the MEA’s own Board of Reference, which sided with the APA and allowed the vote to stand. Rather than file an appeal to the Board of Reference as permitted under the MEA’s own by-laws, the Watch Group brought suit in the Ingham County Circuit Court.

The matter was assigned to Judge Manderfield, who issued her ruling on July 28. Manderfield found that the MEA’s internal procedures for resolving disputes were reasonable, and that the Watch Group had not exhausted this process. Citing prior case law in which courts have ruled that plaintiffs are obligated to pursue internal union remedies before filing suit, the judge concluded that she did not have jurisdiction and closed the case.

This was a difficult question that could have gone either way, since the doctrine that the court cited has exceptions. A court can step in when an organization’s internal process for dispute resolution is overly complicated and dragged out, or where the plaintiff can show that prejudice makes further internal appeals futile. While it is not unreasonable to say that the Watch Group should have given the MEA’s Panel of Reference a second look at the question, the Watch Group could very well have wound up arguing the same points in front of the same group of people.

When union officials flout the rules, rank-and-file union members are at a severe disadvantage. This is especially true for government employee unions in Michigan, where there are few standards for governing internal union affairs. Reform-minded union members can work through the courts, but litigation means legal fees. Union officials have access to significant sums of money from compulsory membership dues and agency fees which they can use for litigation, but individual union members have to pay attorneys out of their own pockets — after paying their own union dues.

Unions also have tremendous political clout, which might come into play in a state where judges are elected. Shortly after this ruling, the MEA PAC made a contribution of $15,000 to Manderfield’s campaign for the Michigan Court of Appeals — a contribution that made the MEA one of the judge’s largest campaign contributors. Unions are also a significant source of campaign volunteers for phone banking and get-out-the-vote drives. While it is unlikely that the judge’s decision was affected by the MEA’s contribution, these are the sort of situations that should cause concern. Bright-line rules will minimize both the temptations and the awkward appearances that come about when a judge must decide a case involving Michigan’s well-funded and politically entrenched unions.

Michigan’s Legislature should take action to level the field and give union reformers a fighting chance. The state should set minimum standards of open governance and streamline the legal procedure for enforcement. The Legislature should set a time limit on internal union procedures, to ensure that union members either have their concerns addressed quickly or have timely access to the courts. When union officials are shown to have violated the rules, they should be required to compensate both individual members and the union treasury for any legal fees incurred.

By setting standards for union governance — and giving those standards teeth — the state can ensure that unions represent their members diligently and fairly, a positive change that no union supporter should object to.

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Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby authorized, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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