Judge Strikes Part of Wisconsin Labor Law

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – The portion of the state’s right-to-work law that gives Wisconsin workers carte blanche to back out of unions is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge William M. Conley disposed of the union challenge in a brief 12-page opinion, finding the law clearly violates a U.S. Supreme Court decision by requiring just 30 days’ notice before an employee can stop paying union dues.

The dispute began in February when the machinists union and its local lodge filed suit over Section 9 of the state’s so-called right-to-work law, which allows workers to stop paying union dues even after agreeing to do so for a year.

Conley denied the union a temporary injunction in July, but otherwise allowed the case to proceed, finding unions have valid claims against the chairperson of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission and the secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development.

Right-to-work laws, which now stand in more than 25 states, are most known for preventing unions from charging “fair-share payments” to nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining.

The complaint by the machinists’ union described its entanglement with Lisa Aplin, an employee at a John Deere plant, who signed an agreement in November 2002 that obligated her to pay union dues for one year. Aplin agreed that this obligation, known as a “dues checkoff authorization,” would renew yearly unless she canceled it within 15 days before the annual renewal date.

When Wisconsin Act 1 took effect last year, however, Aplin saw her out. She wrote a letter to John Deere on July 31, stating she was withdrawing from the union.

Though John Deere initially resisted, citing the year-long agreement, it refunded Aplin’s union dues when the Department of Workforce Development supported her challenge.

The union’s lawsuit followed soon after, and the department later supported the employee in a similar complaint.

Federal law expressly permits employers to deduct and remit union dues with an employee’s consent, Judge Conley wrote in Tuesday’s opinion, provided the employee can revoke consent at the end of a checkoff authorization’s yearlong term.

Conley found the Labor Management Relations Act preempts any state law setting a different timeline for withdrawing from paying dues, as decided by the Supreme Court in the 1969 case SeaPak v. Industrial, Technical and Professional Employees.

Conley rejected the state’s arguments that the Western Wisconsin federal court is not bound by the SeaPak precedent.

“The summary affirmance of the district court’s decision in SeaPak was a decision on the merits of the same issues raised in this case: whether a state law restricting the duration of dues checkoff authorizations is preempted by federal law under the doctrines of conflict and field preemption,” the judge wrote. “Those issues having been presented and decided by the Supreme Court, the SeaPak decision controls this case as well.”

Conley noted that the SeaPak ruling has not been undermined or overturned by subsequent decisions.

The judge issued an order permanently forbidding enforcement of Section 9, but declined to issue injunctions against the individual defendants.

As of press time Wednesday, no appeal has been filed by either party.

Johnny Koremenos, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, said the department is reviewing the decision.

A voicemail left with Jill Hartley of The Previant Law Firm, which represents the union, was also not immediately returned.

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