State “Right to Work” Law Ruled Unconstitutional

unions mapLaws in New Jersey and many other states protect workers’ right and ability to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining with employers. Some states, however, have passed laws aimed at significantly reducing workers’ ability to unionize, ironically named “right to work” laws. These laws prohibit requiring workers who choose not to join a union to pay any sort of fee to the union, even if they benefit from working conditions only made possible by union efforts. In a bit of good news, a Wisconsin court has ruled that its state’s “right to work” law constitutes a taking of union property by the government without just compensation, in violation of the state constitution. Int’l Assoc. Of Machinists Dist. 10, et al. v. State of Wisconsin, et al., No. 2015CV000628, order (Wis. Cir. Ct., Dane Co., Apr. 8, 2016).

Unions represent employees in collective bargaining negotiations with their employers. These types of negotiations, backed by strikes and other actions, helped make possible many of the features of employment taken for granted today. Workers who do not join a union generally still benefit from the union’s activities, so unions have, in the past, sought contractual terms with employers to address this imbalance. A “closed shop” refers to an employer that, under the terms of a union contract, may only hire union members. A “union shop” is an employer that must require all employees to join the union.

Federal law has banned closed-shop clauses in union-employer contracts. States can prohibit union-shop clauses, but federal law allows unions to require the payment of an “agency fee” by non-union workers. See Communications Workers of America v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735 (1988). “Right to work” laws prohibit union-shop clauses, particularly agency fees. The Wisconsin Legislature passed a “right to work” law in 2015. See WI Stat. §§ 111.04(3)(a)(4), 111.06(1)(c).

New Jersey is a much more union-friendly state than Wisconsin. This state expressly provides the right to unionize to employees of public utilities and other public employees, N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 34:13A-5.3, 34:13B-2. Various New Jersey employment laws, addressing issues like minimum wage, protect employees’ right to collective bargaining. See, e.g., N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 34:11-56a26, 34:11-56.41, 34:11-56.67. State court decisions have upheld both closed-shop and union-shop agreements. See F. F. East Co. v. United Oysterman’s Union, 21 A.2d. 799 (N.J. 1941).

A group of labor organizations filed suit against the state of Wisconsin and several government officials, seeking to have the 2015 law invalidated under the state constitution. The plaintiffs argued that, by “prohibiting the unions from charging nonmembers who refuse to pay for representation services which unions continue to be obligated to provide by law,” the law constitutes an unconstitutional taking. Int’l Assoc. Of Machinists Dist. 10, order at 2. This provision of the state constitution is comparable to the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The court agreed and granted summary judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor. While the case is undoubtedly an important victory, it was at a state-level trial court, so multiple levels of appeal are still possible.

If you need to speak to an employment law attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997 today to schedule a confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Deadlocked Supreme Court Affirms Appellate Court Ruling on Public Sector Union Dues, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, June 10, 2016

NLRB Issues Important Ruling Regarding “Joint Employers”, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 15, 2015

New Laws Require Employers in Some New Jersey Cities to Provide Paid Sick Leave to Employees, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, August 6, 2015

Photo credit: Author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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