By Brendan O'Brien
(Reuters) - The Michigan Legislature's right to create a law that bans mandatory union membership trumps the authority of a state agency that oversees public employment, an appeals court ruled on Thursday.
The state legislature passed the "right to work" law in December amid union protests in Lansing, dealing a stunning blow to organized labor in the state that is home to U.S. automakers and the symbol of industrial labor in the United States.
The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the legislature had the authority to create the law that makes union fees voluntary because it has the constitutional right to "speak for the people on matters of significant public concern."
Unions who brought the challenge argued the law intrudes on the power of the state's Civil Service Commission because the agency has the authority to "regulate all conditions of employment."
"We are deeply disappointed by the court's ruling, which, if it stands, will undermine Michigan's constitutional protections for state workers," Cindy Estrada, a vice president of United Auto Workers, said in a statement.
The UAW could appeal, the statement said.
Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed the right-to-work legislation in December 2012, making Michigan the 24th U.S. state to prohibit unions from requiring employees to join and contribute dues. It went into effect in March.
"As the law is written, public sector employees will receive the same freedoms and choices as private sector employees. Everyone will be treated equally," said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in a statement.
Labor unions in the United States have faced several major setbacks during the last two years, including collective bargaining reforms in Wisconsin and right-to-work legislation in Indiana.
Several other states and local governments have either made cuts or are considering cuts to the pensions of public sector workers because of financial difficulties.
(Reporting By Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Greg McCune and Andre Grenon)