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Precedent-setting Michigan case poised to be overturned by U.S. Supreme Court

steve carmody
Michigan Radio

In the next month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to overturn a ruling in a precedent-setting Michigan case.

In 1977’s Abood versus Detroit Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector workers could be compelled to "support legitimate, non-ideological, union activities germane to collective-bargaining representation."

The ruling allowed government employee unions to require fees from workers, whether they want to pay fees to the union or not.   

But the current high court’s conservative majority is expected to strike down that decision in a case called Janus versus AFSCME.

Labor leaders say this is part of an effort to kill public sector unions.

“Cases like Janus are just another attempt to undermine unions’ abilities to help provide a voice for those workers in our economy,” says Doug Pratt, the Michigan Education Association.

However, those in favor of overturning Abood say it’s not fair to force someone to pay union fees in order to hold a government job. 

The conservative Mackinac Center Legal Foundationfiled a briefwith the U.S. Supreme Court in the Janus case.  

The Center’s Patrick Wright disagrees with those who say the intent behind Janus is to kill public sector unions.

"There are unions in right-to-work states. Right-to-work essentially bans these fees,” says Wright.

Michigan is now one of those Right-to-Work states, so workers here would largely be unaffected by its repeal. But some local police and firefighter unions are exempt under Michigan’s Right-to-Work law, so they would not be allowed to collect fees if Janus is repealed. 

This isn’t the first case the court has considered in recent yearsto strike down Abood.

In 2016, the justices heard arguments in a case entitled Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.   Critics challenged a law requiring California public school teachers to pay mandatory dues for union activities violated the First Amendment. However, before the high court ruled, Justice Antonin Scalia died.  In the end, the justices split 4-4.  

Conservatives believe the newest member of the court, Associate Justice Neal Gorsuch, will be the key swing vote in the Janus case.

Gorsuch wrote the majority in a recent 5-4 decision where the court ruled for the first time that workers may not band together to challenge violations of federal labor laws.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.