Tuesday, September 2, 2014
A sharply divided three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit today upheld Indiana's "right to work" law against federal preemption and other constitutional challenges. The ruling means that Indiana's law stays on the books--a serious blow to unions in the state. But the division invites en banc review and even Supreme Court review of this bitterly contested issue.
The case, Sweeney v. Pence, tested the constitutionality of Indiana's "right to work" law, enacted in February 2012. That law prohibits any person from requiring an individual to join a union as a condition of employment. As relevant here, it also prohibits any person from requiring an individual to "[p]ay dues, fees, assessments, or other charges of any kind or amount to a labor organization" as a condition of employment. In short, it prohibits mandatory "fair share" fees--those fees that non-union-members have to pay for the collective bargaining activities of a union (but not the union's political activities), in order to avoid free-riding.
The law deals a blow to unions, because it allows non-members to escape even representational fees (or "fair share" fees, those fees designed to cover only a union's collective bargaining and employee representational costs, but not political expenditures), even as federal law requires unions to provide "fair representation" to all employees, union or not. This encourages "free riders," non-member employees who take advantage of union activities but decline to pay for them.
The plaintiffs, members and officers of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150, AFL-CIO, argued that the National Labor Relations Act preempted Indiana's law and that the law violated various constitutional individual-rights protections. The preemption argument turned on two provisions of the NLRA, Sections 8(a)(3) and 14(b). Section 8(a)(3) provides,
It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer . . . by discrimination in regard to hire or tenure or employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization.
Provided, That nothing in this subchapter, or in any other statute of the United States, shall preclude an employer from making an agreement with a labor organization (not established, maintained, or assisted by any action defined in this subsection as an unfair labor practice) to require as a condition of employment membership therein . . . .
Section 14(b) says,
Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed as authorizing the execution or application of agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment in any State or Territory in which such execution or application is prohibited by State or Territorial law.
The Union argued that under this language a state may ban an agency-shop agreement (a requirement that all employees pay full union dues, whether or not they are members), but not a lesser union-security arrangement (like a fair share requirement).
The majority disagreed. The court said that Indiana had broad rights to restrict union-security agreements, including fair share. It first pointed to Supreme Court cases (Retail Clerks I and II) that held that Section 14(b) allowed a state to ban an agency-shop agreement. It then read the term "membership" in Section 14(b) quite narrowly, to include non-members who were required to pay fair share fees. (That's right: the court said that non-members were part of the "membership" under Section 14(b).) The court said that the final clause of Section 14(b) therefore leaves room for states to ban complete union-security agreements (like agency shops) and also lesser union-security agreements (like fair share). It said that some states had these laws on the books when Congress passed Section 14(b), and that some states have them on the books today. "The longevity of many of these statutes, coupled with the lack of disapproval expressed by the Supreme Court, suggests to us that Indiana's right-to-work law falls squarely within the realm of acceptable law."
The majority also rejected the plaintiffs' individual-rights arguments, under the Takings Clause, the Contracts Clause, the Ex Post Facto Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and the Free Speech Clause.
Judge Wood dissented. She argued that under the majority's approach, Indiana's law amounted to an unconstitutional taking (because, along with the duty of fair representation, it required the union to do work for non-members without pay). She said the better approach (under constitutional avoidance principles)--and the one more consistent with the language of the NLRA and Retail Clerks I and II)--said that the NLRA preempted Indiana's law.
The sharp disagreement on the panel, the uncertain state of the law, and the contentiousness of the underlying issue all suggest that this case is ripe for en banc review and, ultimately, Supreme Court review. If so, this case could be the next in a recent line of anti-union rulings chipping away at fair share.