Michigan’s public sector bargaining law, the Public Employment Relations Act (PERA), MCL 423.201 et seq., has long recognized the right of a union to “prescribe its own rules with respect to the . . . retention of membership.” A right-to-work amendment to that law (2012 PA 349) provides that a public employee cannot be forced to “remain a member of a labor organization or bargaining representative or otherwise affiliate with or financially support a labor organization or bargaining representative.” In light of these provisions, can a union limit membership revocation to a one month window period each year? Is this a lawful union rule relating to the retention of union membership? Or, is it an unlawful attempt to force a public employee to remain a member and pay dues?
On May 2, 2017, the Michigan Court of Appeals decided Saginaw Education Association which addressed just this issue. Saginaw Education Association involved an administrative action brought by seven employees. Although some of the employees were represented by different (but affiliated) unions, and had different employers, the fact scenario involving each employee was similar. Upon hire, the employee signed a membership application in which he agreed to join the union and have union dues deducted from his pay. The membership application provided that the employee’s membership status would continue unless revoked in writing during August of any year. In each case, the union claimed that the employee’s attempt to revoke his membership and stop paying dues was ineffective because it was made outside the one month window period. The Court of Appeals disagreed. Instead, the Court found that limiting the member to a one-month period for revoking membership and dues deduction was a violation of PERA. Specifically, it violated the PERA provision which commands that no person shall “force” a public employee to “remain a member of a labor organization or bargaining representative or otherwise affiliate with or financially support a labor organization or bargaining representative.”
The Court indicated that the PERA provision recognizing a union’s right to “prescribe its own rules with respect to the . . . retention of membership” was inapplicable. The Court reasoned that the provision permits a union to adopt rules regarding expulsion from the union, but does not authorize it to adopt rules that restrict the right of members to resign their membership.
The Court’s analysis did not end there, however. The Court also recognized that public employees could waive their right to resign from the union and stop the payment of dues. In Saginaw Education Association, there was no such waiver language.
The Saginaw Education Association case stands for some very important lessons. Employees need to read and understand what they are signing when they are a union member. Do they have a right to stop paying union dues or stop being a union member? If so, when and under what conditions can they revoke their union membership and stop paying dues? Have they waived their right to do so at any time? Know what you are signing before you do so.
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