Right-to-work (for less) laws speed to Michigan high court

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan’s two controversial right-to-work laws, passed by the GOP-run legislature in a lame-duck session in December – over long and loud unionists’ protests and a state capitol lockout – are headed on a fast track to the state’s Supreme Court, thanks to, ironically, the GOP governor who signed it.

On Jan. 28, Gov. Rick Snyder did an end-around on any potential for unions to win a lower-court injunction against the state’s new right-to-work laws. Snyder went directly to the Michigan Supreme Court and asked it to rule on whether the two laws impact state employee contracts, and whether the new RTW laws would survive as-yet-unfiled legal cases brought by unions in lower courts.

Unions, led by the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, the United Auto Workers, the state AFL-CIO and the Michigan Education Association, had announced they would challenge the RTW laws in lower courts.  They want court orders to keep the laws, one covering all private sector workers and the other covering almost all public sector workers, declared unconstitutional.

The unions and the Michigan Civil Liberties Union, say the two laws violate both the Michigan constitution and the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment, which mandates “equal protection of the laws” to everyone in the U.S.  The Michigan RTW laws are part of a national GOP-business-right-wing drive to smash unions and workers.

Snyder asked Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young, Jr.:

  • Whether the public sector right-to-work law applies to 35,000 unionized state workers. Historically the Michigan Civil Service Commission has autonomy to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with unions. “This is a very time-sensitive question,” Snyder wrote. “It is essential that all parties to the negotiations know definitively whether the new contracts must comply with Public Act 349 before those negotiations commence roughly five months from now.”
  • If the new right-to-work laws violate the 14TH amendment, which allows equal protection to all under the law. Snyder acknowledged in his letter “the legislation does not apply to all employees in public or private sector bargaining units.”

In fact, Republican lawmakers “carved out” the Michigan State Police officers as well as unionized police and firefighters in local communities from being bound by the right-to-work legislation. Critics blasted the RTW exemption as a political gift to win police and firefighter votes. The GOP lawmakers justified that move by citing a 1969 Michigan state law which mandates binding arbitration when contract impasses occur, a legal move that places cops and firefighters in a category all their own.

The legal question is perhaps labor’s strongest argument for getting RTW overturned: Does that existing exemption create a sufficient precedent that it allows different treatment of police and firefighters from other union workers, moving them out from under the Constitution’s equal protection clause?

Snyder, who had previously been lukewarm about RTW, reversed course just as the lame-duck session opened, saying he would sign it.  Right-wing lawmakers, backed by a multimillion-dollar campaign by GOP conservative Dick Devos, then pushed it through in less than a week with no hearings and little debate.  Unionists descended on the State Capitol building in Lansing to protest, but found the doors locked and barred.

That violation of the state’s open meetings law led to the unions’ lawsuit plan, which Snyder’s letter to the state High Court may have pre-empted.

The governor’s decision to take the case directly to the court is unusual and blatantly self-serving, but it’s not unprecedented.  The unions’ first legal stop would undoubtedly have been a county circuit court that has been historically made more worker-friendly rulings.  An injunction there, and an agreeable appeals court ruling, could have delayed RTW implementation for months.

But ultimately, the smart money will be on the Michigan Supreme Court agreeing with Snyder and Republican lawmakers on RTW – the high court will soon have a 5-2 conservative majority.   “I think it’s obvious that the main purpose of Snyder’s move was to avoid a lower court injunction,” said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council attorney John Canzano.  “Unfortunately, Snyder is probably going to get the answers that he wants from the state Supreme Court.”

Zack Pohl, executive director of Progress Michigan, said Snyder’s legal move by Snyder is the latest example of his “political overreach” on RTW.  “First he bypasses the normal committee processes and signs this bill behind closed doors and under the cover of darkness,” Pohl said.  “Now he’s trying to bypass the legal process by getting a Republican Supreme Court to rubber-stamp this so-called ‘Right to Work’ law that was bought and paid for by corporate special interests.”

“Regardless of how you feel about right-to-work laws, everyone has a stake in seeing that our government conducts business in a democratic and transparent way,” said Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift.  “Any law passed while citizens were locked out of their capitol building should be struck down.”

Marty Mulcahy is managing editor for the Building Tradesman.

Photo: Darron Cummings/AP


Marty Mulcahy
Marty Mulcahy

Marty Mulcahy is the managing editor of The Building Tradesman.