Two Wins for Freedom from Union Coercion in 2014
The end of the dues skim and the busting of the 'August Window'
A pair of 2014 legal rulings stand out as victories for freedom. The first came in Harris v. Quinn, a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court; the second involves a case brought by Saginaw Public Schools employees who believe Michigan's right-to-work law allows them to leave a union regardless of the date on the calendar.
Harris v. Quinn
In a 5-4 decision on June 30, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that workers who indirectly receive state funds for taking care of children, the disabled, or the elderly, cannot be forced to pay union dues. The ruling meant that caregivers nationwide – including parents, relatives and friends who look after loved ones, and those who provide child care – can no longer be forced to financially support unions simply because the people they care for receive taxpayer-provided assistance.
Though Harris v. Quinn emanated from Illinois, the central issue of the case had already been dealt with in Michigan after being brought to light by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation (MCLF) and Michigan Capitol Confidential. To a large extent, the high court's June 30 ruling validated the position of those who had opposed and fought forced unionization in this state.
In the fall of 2009, MCLF unmasked what later became known as the SEIU dues skim. It was a scheme that had forced tens of thousands of Michigan’s home-based caregivers into the Service Employees International Union. Because of this forced unionization, millions of dollars in “dues” extracted from Medicaid payments to caregivers were being sent to the union.
The political and legal battle over the dues skim included legislative efforts in 2011 to defund the forced unionization and the SEIU maneuvering to keep it going. In 2012, Michigan Capitol Confidential published a series of articles exposing the onerous nature of the dues skim, along with a daily skim-tracker that displayed a running total of the millions of dollars SEIU was taking from home-based caregivers.
In March 2012, legislation was passed to outlaw the dues skim. The SEIU went to court to keep it alive temporarily, while putting a proposal on the ballot to embed the scheme in the Michigan constitution. The union ran a deceptive campaign (for example, pretending the initiative would create institutional safeguards for care recipients when these were already in place), but voters rejected the proposal. Gov. Rick Snyder took the last administrative steps needed to end the scheme, which finally died in the spring of 2013 – but only after the SEIU had extracted more than $34 million from thousands of caregivers.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation represented the caregivers in Harris v. Quinn. MCLF filed an amicus brief in the case showing the similarities between the Illinois scheme and those in other states. Michigan Capitol Confidential covered the case in 2014, from the oral arguments in January to the ultimate decision. It was one of a very few, possibly the only, news source that did so.
August Window Busted
In early September, Julia C. Stern, a Michigan administrative law judge, ruled that under the state's new right-to-work law, public employees can resign from a union at any time of the year. The decision was a defeat for the Michigan Education Association, which had argued that its long-standing "August window" should remain in force in spite of the state's new right-to-work law.
The "window" was an internal union rule under which the MEA would not accept a member’s resignation unless it was submitted in writing during the month of August. Prior to Michigan adopting a right-to-work law in December 2012, the rule was relatively obscure, because leaving the union would not free an employee from being forced to pay "agency fees" that cost nearly as much as full union dues.
After the right-to-work law went into effect on March 28, 2013, many MEA members believed (correctly as it turned out) that they could leave the union at any time by simply informing the union. Meanwhile, the MEA continued to advise members that it regarded the August window as still in effect – but only if a member specifically asked about it. Inevitably, there were school employees who tried to leave the union during months other than August, only to discover that the MEA would not accept their resignation.
Judge Stern’s ruling came in a case in which a group of Saginaw Public Schools employees charged the MEA with unfair labor practices. The Saginaw school employees were represented by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation in the action, which was filed with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.
MERC is expected to uphold Judge Stern’s ruling; if it does the MEA could then file an appeal.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.