LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan's right-to-work law applies to 35,000 state employees, a divided state appeals court ruled Thursday in the first major legal decision on the much-debated measure eight months after it passed.
Judges voted 2-1 to reject a lawsuit filed by unionized workers who make up more than two-thirds of all state employees. In a state with a heavier presence of organized labor than most, thousands of protesters came to the Capitol late last year as the Republican-backed measure won quick approval in a lame-duck session.
The law prohibits forcing public and private workers in Michigan to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment, and applies to labor contracts extended or renewed after late March. It went to court after questions were raised whether it can affect state employees, since the Michigan Civil Service Commission, which sets compensation for state employees, has separate powers under the state constitution.
The court's majority said legislators have broad authority to pass laws dealing with conditions of "all" employment while the panel has narrow power to regulate conditions of civil service employment.
"In light of the First Amendment rights at stake, the Michigan Legislature has made the policy decision to settle the matter by giving all employees the right to choose," Judges Henry Saad and Pat Donofrio wrote, adding that legislators decided to "remove politics from public employment and to end all inquiry or debate about how public sector union fees are spent."
Dissenting Judge Elizabeth Gleicher said the court's decision strips the civil service panel of its "regulatory supremacy" clearly laid out in the constitution, which allows the four-member commission to regulate "all conditions of employment" for civil service workers.
"It cannot seriously be questioned that imposition of an 'agency fee' constitutes a regulation of a condition of employment," she wrote.
The Civil Service Commission currently has three appointees of former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and some members have battled with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder over proposals affecting state workers. The commission filed a brief with the appeals court taking the unions' side on the right-to-work issue.
In January, a month after Michigan became the nation's 24th right-to-work state, Snyder asked the Michigan Supreme Court to step in early and decide the measure's legality, particularly the state employee matter. But the high court declined after other state and federal suits were filed requesting the law be struck down.
Legal challenges in neighboring Indiana, which passed a right-to-work law just before Michigan did, have been unsuccessful. An appeal to the Michigan's conservative Supreme Court is likely.
"Like so many decisions in our state under Republican control, this decision is purely political and is not based on our Constitution or the best interests of Michigan's citizens and working families," United Auto Workers President Bob King said in a statement. The UAW bargains on behalf of 17,000 state workers.
Contracts for state employees end Dec. 31, and five unions and the Snyder administration recently began negotiating new contracts. Contracts between unions and Detroit automakers are effective until September 2015.
Police officers and firefighters are exempted from the law and must pay union fees.
"We've maintained all along that the law is constitutional, and we think it's time to put this issue behind us and continue focusing on our state's improved and improving economy," Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said.
Supporters of right-to-work laws say they help with economic development and give employees a choice on whether their union is worth contributing to. Critics say the laws are more about union-busting in an attempt to hurt Democrats' political standing.
The ruling came just a day after a different panel on the appeals court struck down legislators' attempt to make state employees contribute 4 percent of their pay to get full pension benefits in retirement.
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