Must Public Schools Collect Dues for Public School Employee Unions?

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decided an interesting case concerning the collection of union dues for public school employees in Michigan. In Bailey v. Callaghan, a divided panel upheld Michigan’s Public Act 53 which provides: ““A public school employer’s use of public school resources to assist a labor organization in collecting dues or service fees from wages of public school employees is a prohibited contribution to the administration of a labor organization.” In other words, under this law, public school employee unions (including teachers’ unions) cannot rely upon payroll deductions to collect union dues and fees, but must shoulder the burden of collecting member dues themselves.

Unions challenged PA 53 on First Amendment and Equal Protection grounds. Judge Kethledge, joined by Judge Gibbons, made quick work of the union claims. Writing for the court, Judge Kethledge explained,

The theory behind their First Amendment claim runs as follows: unions engage in speech (among many other activities); they need membership dues to engage in speech; if the public schools do not collect the unions’ membership dues for them, the unions will have a hard time collecting the dues themselves; and thus Public Act 53 violates the unions’ right to free speech.

The problem with this theory is that the Supreme Court has already rejected it. “The First Amendment prohibits government from ‘abridging the freedom of speech’; it does not confer an affirmative right to use government payroll mechanisms for the purpose of obtaining funds for expression.” Ysursa v. Pocatello Educ. Ass’n, 555 U.S. 353, 355 (2009). Here, Public Act 53 does not restrict the unions’ speech at all: they remain free to speak about whatever they wish. Moreover, “nothing in the First Amendment prevents a State from determining that its political subdivisions may not provide payroll deductions” for union activities, id.; and payroll deductions are all that Public Act 53 denies the unions here. Seldom is precedent more binding than Ysursa is in this case.

Judge Kethledge rejected the union efforts to distinguish Ysura and summarily dispatched the Equal Protection claim under rational basis scrutiny.

Judge Stranch dissented, arguing Ysura did not control. Here is how she summarized her dissent:

The majority spills little ink in its dismissal of the school unions’ free-speech challenge. In doing so, it mischaracterizes the First Amendment interests at stake, glosses over key distinctions the Supreme Court requires us to observe, and averts its gaze from Act 53’s blatant viewpoint discrimination. Most concerning to me, however, is the majority’s refusal to engage in an analysis of viewpoint discrimination in light of Michigan’s explicit statement that the law’s purpose is to put a “check on union power.” The foundational requirement of viewpoint neutrality means little if a state may legislate with impunity to cripple the power of an unpopular group whose political views are objectionable to the state. The unanswered constitutional question in this case is whether the government may burden expression it disagrees with by selectively restricting access to public resources that facilitate that expression. The answer is no. The majority wrongly concludes otherwise.