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Checkmate: Dues Checkoff Limitations In Wisconsin’s Right To Work Law Found Preempted By Federal Law

Labor & Employment Alert Michael Aldana, Judith A. Williams-Killackey, Fred Gants, Steve Kruzel

As we have previously reported, Wisconsin's Right to Work Law has undergone many legal challenges since its enactment in March of 2015. While much of the litigation to date has tested the constitutionality of the entire statute, a recent case in the Western District of Wisconsin involved a constitutional challenge to the statute's dues checkoff limitations, which provide that an employee is permitted to revoke her wage deduction authorization for union dues at any time after providing her employer 30 days' written notice. Prior to Wisconsin enacting its own dues checkoff provision, most collective bargaining agreements typically required employees' dues checkoff authorizations to be irrevocable for a one-year period and only allowed a limited window for revocation, which is permitted under the federal Labor Management Relations Act's (LMRA) dues checkoff provision.

After an employee at John Deere's Horicon, Wisconsin facility attempted to exercise her revocation rights under Wisconsin's law, her union, the International Association of Machinists, challenged the constitutionality of Wisconsin's dues checkoff limitations, arguing that Wisconsin's provision was preempted by the LMRA.

The Decision

On December 27, 2016, Judge William Conley of the Western District of Wisconsin issued a decision finding that Wisconsin's dues checkoff limitations were preempted by the LMRA. The judge determined that Wisconsin's provision was preempted on both conflict and field preemption grounds — finding that the LMRA's dues checkoff provision and Wisconsin's provision could not coexist because the federal law permits unions to bargain for dues checkoff authorizations that are irrevocable for one year (conflict preemption), and that the NLRA/LMRA occupies the field of dues checkoff limitations (field preemption). The judge explained that his ruling was controlled by the United States Supreme Court's decision in SeaPak v. Indus., Tech. & Prof'l Emp.Dic. Natl. Mar. Union, AFL-CIO, where the Supreme Court affirmed, without discussion, a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals determination finding that the State of Georgia's dues checkoff provision was preempted by the LMRA. Though SeaPak is an older decision (issued in 1971), the judge noted that the case has not been overturned and has been relied on by numerous district courts since that time. As a result, Judge Conley concluded that he was bound by the decision in issuing his determination.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice has stated that it is currently reviewing the state's options following the decision and that it may appeal Judge Conley's decision.

Impact on Wisconsin Employers

Wisconsin employers with unionized workforces should take note of the decision. Employers in negotiations (or those that soon will be) should be wary of Wisconsin's dues checkoff limitations as controlling the outcome of the dues checkoff language in their contracts. For employers whose contracts contain dues checkoff language based on Wisconsin's Right to Work Law, they may receive requests from their unions to bargain over this issue or to reinstate prior dues checkoff language. Further, if an employer attempts to rely upon a 30-day revocation based on Wisconsin's dues checkoff provision, it may face challenges from its union.

Quarles & Brady will monitor the developments in this case and continue to update our clients. If you have questions about the decision, please contact Michael Aldana at (414) 277-5151/[email protected], Judith A. Williams-Killackey at (414) 277-5439/[email protected], Fred Gants at (608) 283-2618/[email protected], Steve Kruzel at (414) 277-5645/[email protected] or your Quarles & Brady attorney.