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Panel OKs controversial changes to state employee union due authorizations

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Lansing — Many Michigan employees will be required to reauthorize their union membership each year after a vote from the Michigan Civil Service Commission on Monday.

The rules also would eliminate by 2022 "agency fees," which are deducted from state worker paychecks if an employee does not authorize dues deductions. The smaller fees usually go to the union instead of union dues for negotiating pay, benefits, grievances and other services.

The civil service commission approved the changes in a 3-1 vote Monday, amid opposition from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and several union members.

The commission, made up of four appointees of Republican former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, includes Republican former Speaker of the House Jase Bolger; former Michigan Chamber of Commerce President James Barrett, a Republican and board member at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy; Michigan State Police retiree Jeff Steffel, an independent; and former state personnel director Janet McClelland, an independent. 

McClelland voted against the proposed changes, noting she was in support of workers being reminded of their rights each year. But she said the current system gives employees enough opportunity to decide whether to join or leave their respective unions at any given time. 

Bolger said the proposal is a "protection of rights" that eliminates the assumption that state employees "endlessly waive their rights" to leave the union.

"Unions will remain free to make their case, but I do believe it protects individual workers’ rights," Bolger said. 

Under the rule changes, starting Oct. 4, a union member's due withdrawal authorization will expire at the start of the first full pay period each fiscal year unless reauthorized. Employees who have reauthorized since Oct. 1, 2019, will not be required to do so again before Oct. 3, 2021. 

Service fees will be barred from payroll deduction Jan. 1, 2022. 

Many union members questioned the timing of the decision as state employees are being asked to work on the front lines of the pandemic and communication between unions and work-from-home employees is strained. 

"The timing is honestly shocking," said Chuck Browning, director of the UAW Region 1A. "These workers' ability to communicate with their unions … has been made nearly impossible. It is my suspicion that the timing was strategically decided upon for this very reason.”

Others said the order created an unconstitutional hurdle for employees forced to reassess membership each year, even as every state employee already has the opportunity to join or leave the union at a given time through a state human resources portal.

"This body has kind of become a tool for eliminating public unions," said George Heath, a member of the SEIU 517M.

The Michigan AFL-CIO called the move a "discriminatory, illegal attack" on state workers, some of whom have been working on the front lines during the pandemic.

“This action has no other purpose than to impose arbitrary hardships on bargaining units, create turmoil in workplaces during a historic pandemic and a global recession, and disrupt the work that unions do on behalf of these state workers," President Ron Bieber said. "It’s unconstitutional, it’s unsupported by any recent laws or court decisions, and it’s just plain wrong. They should be ashamed.” 

But Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the policy simply codifies state law in light of the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME.

The high court ruled in that case that mandatory union fees required of state workers were an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. The Janus decision came after Michigan’s 2013 right-to-work law prohibited mandatory union dues or fees as a condition of employment.

"Especially in this time of economic uncertainty, it is time to give state employees that fresh choice," Vernuccio said. 

Following the 2013 right-to-work law and the 2018 Janus decision, the commission in 2019 put in place similar reforms that allowed state employees to grant or withdraw authorization at any time and centralized due and fee authorization.

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