Wisconsin Union Dues Challenge Advances

     MADISON, Wis. (CN) — A law that gives Wisconsin workers carte blanche to back out of unions is not yet in the clear, but a federal judge saw no cause to block it Tuesday.
     The dispute began in February when the machinists union and its local filed suit over a portion of the state’s so-called “right-to-work” law that lets workers stop paying union dues even after agreeing to do so for a year. Like a gym membership for the commitment-phobic, the law says workers need only give 30 days’ notice.
     U.S. District Judge William Conley denied the union a temporary injunction Tuesday but otherwise allowed the case to proceed, finding the 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.
     Conley nevertheless excluded the department as a party to the case, however, because he said it is not tasked with enforcing the right-to-work law.
     Both it and the state are also immune to the listed claims, Conley ruled Tuesday.
     The judge also dismissed Gov. Scott Walker as a party to the action, noting that the union did not contest it.
     Because the union’s injury under the law was caused by a decision of the department, the court found that it can seek relief from its secretary.
     If they want their constitutional challenge to survive, they must amend their complaint to include the chairperson of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, the enforcing agency, he added.
     Although they have met the “low bar” for showing success is likely based on the merits of their complaint, the unions failed to show they would suffer “irreparable harm” if the law was not voided pending court proceedings.
     “Plaintiffs’ reliance on vague and conclusory statements about irreparable harm are simply not enough to show that they are entitled to the extraordinary remedy of preliminary injunctive relief,” Conley wrote.
     The unions did not, for example, calculate the amount of dues they could lose from employees who give a 30-day notice, and thus ignore the fact that they could have lost dues anyway provided employees gave the contractually required 15-day notice before terminating their agreements.
     The state Department of Justice has not returned an email seeking comment.
     Most of the union’s court filings in this case came from attorney Nathan Eisenberg of Milwaukee-based The Previant Law Firm SC.
     Eisenberg did not return an email and a voicemail seeking comment by press time.

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