Four Dearborn workers are suing the Michigan Teamsters for flouting the state’s newly implemented right-to-work law.
The suit alleges that Teamsters Local 214 hijacked the public employees grievance process in order to accumulate forced dues. The union signed a contract with the city that prohibits employees from taking their complaints directly to their superiors. Workers are forced to pay the union to handle the grievance process, a violation of the right-to-work law’s prohibition of coercive union representation.
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"The Union’s blanket policy of refusing to process grievances of nonunion members based on nonpayment is a refusal to process the grievance without assessing the merits of the grievance," the suit states. "A union may not enact internal policies that discriminate against nonunion members of the bargaining unit where those policies ‘have a direct effect on terms and conditions of employment.’"
The pro-right-to-work Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which filed the suit, says the policy is designed to "compel public employees to join or remain union members."
Teamsters 214 president Joseph Valenti said that the fees are meant to avoid the problem of freeloading by non-union workers.
"A contract is owned by the union, not by the employees," he said. "If you choose not to pay dues, how do you expect to get something from the association?"
Right-to-work allows employees to opt out of union representation, though workers must wait until existing union contracts expire. The Teamster’s Dearborn contract expired in 2010. The four employees withdrew from the union soon after right-to-work’s implementation, which exempted them from paying union dues.
Valenti signed a new policy in June forcing non-union employees to pay the union for filing complaints. Workers have to pay the Teamsters $150 and cover the "actual cost of grievance processing and arbitration," as well as "one-half of the cost of the arbitrator and outside counsel." The policy was designed to target non-union members.
"The fees will routinely be waived so long as the individual has maintained their membership in good standing," the policy states.
Valenti said the non-union members are getting a good deal. Arbitration costs $3,000 on average. The Teamsters will cover all the costs in full for those who pay the average monthly $35 in dues and half the costs of non-members.
"If you have no union and you have a grievance with your employer, a lawyer is going to cost you a hell of a lot more than $1,500," he said. "If these four are saying they want to go on their own that’s fine, but they’re saying they want us to represent them without ever paying us."
"These four individuals, in my opinion, are committing suicide."
Glenn Taubman, an attorney with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said that these "punishment provisions" have been common practice in the private sector for decades, though none have survived legal scrutiny. The fact that the four defendants are government employees adds "novelty" to the case and could set precedent to curb the influence of burgeoning public sector unions.
"These kind of penalty provisions against people who exercise their rights under right to work laws have been struck down under federal labor law for decades," he said. "Unions tried this for decades in the private sector and have been uniformly unsuccessful in collecting such fees for representation before the [National Labor Relations Board] and in the courts."
Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state in December thanks to Gov. Rick Snyder. State and federal courts tossed out labor challenges to the law, allowing the state to implement the law in March.
The Teamsters are just the latest to carve out special deals with employers to preserve dwindling membership by flouting the law. The federal government is investigating another Dearborn union associated with the auto industry for denying pay raises and promotions to non-union members.
Other public sector unions signed long-term contracts on the eve of right-to-work implementation to prevent employees from opting out, while union officials have urged local labor leaders to sue members to keep them in the union.
Valenti said the union is prepared to fight the suit.
"We’re here to restore balance; we’re the only one doing something about [right-to-work]," he said. "We’ll go to court if we have to and take it to the last."