Indiana Supreme Court Upholds Right-to-Work Law

As the number of right-to-work states is expected to grow in the near future, the Indiana Supreme Court reaffirmed the legitimacy of the law in its state.

In 2012, Indiana passed its right-to-work law, which prohibits employers and unions from agreeing to contract terms that require non-members to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Unions, soon after the passage of the law, filed a lawsuit alleging that it violates the state’s constitution, which “prohibits the state from demanding services without just compensation.”

This November, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the right-to-work law. In the unanimous ruling, the Justices declared, “there is no statedemand for services; the law merely prohibits employers from requiring union membership or the payment of monies as a condition of employment.”

However, labor unions are not quitting their fight to quash right-to-work in the Hoosier state. James Sweeney, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, the plaintiff in the case, vowed to appeal and made comments on the union’s position going forward. As the Indianapolis Star reports, Sweeney said:

“We maintain our commitment that this ‘right to work’ law forces Local 150 and other unions in Indiana to provide services without compensation,” he said. “The Court’s decision centered on its ruling that unions can form ‘members only’ bargaining units, which we know through decades of legal precedent to be unlawful. Because this decision is based on what we firmly believe to be a misinterpretation of federal law, we will consider petitioning the United States Supreme Court to hear this case.”

Unfortunately for the IUOE, Sweeney’s argument will not hold water because the U.S. Supreme Court has time and again declared that federal labor law does not require unions to represent non-members and they may negotiate “members-only” contracts.

The National Labor Relations Act only forces unions to equally represent members and non-members, who do not pay dues, when they negotiate to become the exclusive representative of the entire bargaining unit. However, obtaining exclusive representation, or monopoly status, is the preferred organizing method of unions because it increases their bargaining power and control over the workforce.

In an excellent report, Stan Greer, senior research associate with the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, documents the U.S. Supreme Court cases upholding the legality of members-only bargaining.

For example, as far back as 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court approved members-only bargaining. In Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes opinion states:

Under Section 7 [of the National Labor Relations Act] the employees of the companies are entitled to self-organization, to join labor organizations and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. The 80 per cent of the employees who members of the [International] Brotherhood [of Electrical Workers union] and its locals had that right. They had the right to choose the Brotherhood as their representative for collective bargaining and to have contracts made as the result of that bargaining.

On this point the contracts speak for themselves. They simply constitute the Brotherhood the collective bargaining agency for those employees who are its members…. Upon this record, there is nothing to show that employees’ selection as indicated by the Brotherhood has been superseded by any other selection by a majority of employees of the companies so as to create an exclusive agency for bargaining under the statute, and in the absence of such an exclusive agency the employees represented by the Brotherhood, even if they were in the minority, clearly had the right to make their own choice.

In another instance, Greer notes in 1962’s U.S. Supreme Court case, Retail Clerks v. Lion Dry Goods, also okayed members-only contracts:

Section 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations [Taft-Hartley] Act, 1947, which confers on federal district courts jurisdiction over suits “for violation of contracts between an employers and a labor organization representing employees in an industry affecting” interstate commerce, applies to a suit to enforce a strike settlement agreement between an employer in an industry affecting interstate commerce and local labor unions representing some, but not a majority, of its employees.

The term “labor organization representing employees,” as used in 301(a), is not limited to labor organizations which are entitled to recognition as exclusive bargaining agents of employees.

While it is the case that unions may negotiate a monopoly status over a bargaining unit and foist unwanted union representation on some workers, it is not mandated by federal labor law. Further, IUOE officials should heed the advice of their union counterpart Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, who over the summer admitted that right-to-work helps unions during organizing campaigns by keeping them accountable to workers and the union a voluntary organization. As Casteel put it:

“You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to,” Casteel said. “So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”