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July 26, 2016

Circuit Court Upholds Public Act 53: Public Schools Prohibited from Collecting Union Dues

Responding to a challenge to the constitutionality of Michigan Public Act 53, which prohibits public schools from collecting union dues from employees, the Sixth Circuit ruled that the act is constitutional. The result of this ruling is that, at this point, public schools are statutorily precluded from collecting dues for the union under any bargaining agreement that was entered into, renewed or extended after March 16, 2012.

The plaintiffs, who are school unions and union members, argued that the act violates their First Amendment and Equal Protection rights.  The district court, agreeing with the plaintiffs, had issued a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the law.  The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court, dissolved the injunction and remanded the case "for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."  It is unclear whether any viable challenge to the statute remains for the district court to address or whether dismissal of the claim is now in order.

The 6th Circuit ruled that Public Act 53 does not violate the First Amendment.  The plaintiffs argued that unions need membership dues to engage in speech and if the public schools don't collect the union dues for them, the unions will have a hard time collecting the dues themselves.  Therefore, Public Act 53 violates the unions’ right to free speech.  The majority opinion stated that the First Amendment prohibits government from limiting the freedom of speech, but it does not give the right to use government payroll systems for the purpose of obtaining funds for speech.  The court concluded that Public Act 53 does not restrict speech.  It "merely directs one kind of public employer to use its resources for its core mission rather than for the collection of union dues." 

Similarly, the Court decided that the plaintiffs' Equal Protection claim fails.  The plaintiffs argued that Public Act 53 violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment because it applies only to unions that represent school employees and not to other public employers.  The court held that there is a legitimate interest in this classification.  That is, the Michigan legislature "could have concluded that it is more important for the public schools to conserve their limited resources for their core mission than it is for other state and local employers."

It remains to be seen whether the Sixth Circuit's opinion ends the debate or if there will be continued challenge.

© 2016 Varnum LLP

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