The battle over Michigan’s right-to-work law is still playing out in courtrooms and at bargaining tables. There are several lawsuits that have been filed against the new law.
Some public employee unions are taking no chances, though. Many locals are working to extend portions of their contracts that deal with union membership before the law takes effect at the end of March.
Extending Contracts As Long As Ten Years
State laws cannot simply override existing contracts. That’s in the U.S. Constitution, called the “contracts clause.” So any labor agreements in place when the right-to-work law takes effect on March 27th are valid until the contract ends.
That has unions scrambling to extend contract provisions that require employees to pay dues or agency fees. Right-to-work laws allow employees to refuse to pay those fees, and that’s expected to cost unions a lot of money.
“I think the law itself is fundamentally flawed,” says Steve Cook of the Michigan Education Association. Union leaders like him say that’s not fair, since by law they have to represent every worker in an organized shop whether they pay dues or not. “So we’re using every legal means possible to protect ourselves, the association – and not only the state association, but the local associations, as well.”
MEA locals, along with a lot of other public employee unions, are going to their employers and asking them to open or re-open contract talks. They want agreements that will allow them to continue to collect dues and fees for as long as ten years into the future.
Steve Cook says that’s legal and fair: “It’s a little like trying to find as many tax deductions as you possibly can. Nobody complains about that.”
Lawsuits Against Unions Possible
“They care more about power and the servile practice of forced unionization than they do about giving their members a choice,” says Greg McNeilly with the Michigan Freedom Fund. It’s a not-for-profit group that was a key player in getting the right-to-work law passed, closely associated with Amway billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos. McNeilly says his group will do whatever it takes to defend the law and thwart efforts to work around it.
“That includes lawsuits against the unions, the public bodies including the board members that adopt them,” he says. “That includes legislation that could provide a financial incentive or disincentives, and it could include recall of local school board members and university governing boards.”
The Troy school district and the Wayne State University Board of Governors are among the public employers that have agreed to contract extensions. Others have said “no” to their unions.
Some Republican state lawmakers say they are looking at sanctions for public employers that make extended agreements to delay the effects of the right-to-work law.
“We pass a law and now somebody’s trying to circumvent it. I think that’s unconscionable,” says state Representative Bill Rogers, who chairs the House education budget subcommittee.
But, Rogers and other Republicans say they might look at the whole thing a little differently if schools and universities use the negotiations to save taxpayers money.
Don Wotruba of the Michigan Association of School Boards says his members are not simply giving in to union requests.
“It’s just a little added leverage that if the unions are looking for something with an extension, that the districts are looking to see how they can parlay that into something that frees up money or gives them more flexibility,” he says.
Wotruba says the discussions range from wage concessions that can help districts retire deficits to year-round school calendars.
And that may not be such a bad deal, say some right-to-work supporters, even if that’s not why they passed the law.