Appeals Court Hears Illinois Right-to-Work Controversy

CHICAGO (CN) – At a Tuesday hearing, the Seventh Circuit seemed unmoved by a conservative challenge to labor laws in Illinois, one of the last union-friendly states in the Rust Belt, in a lawsuit seeking to legalize local right-to-work ordinances.

In 2015, the village of Lincolnshire, a far northern suburb of Chicago with a population of 7,000, passed a right-to-work law that prohibits union security agreements.

Union supporters say these agreements address the “free rider” problem by requiring all employees who work in a union-protected job to pay union dues even if they are not a member of the union. Those who oppose unions say forcing non-union members to pay “fair-share” fees is a violation of the First Amendment.

The ordinance sparked uproar in Springfield, where unions hold powerful sway with Democratic lawmakers.

The Democratic Legislature passed a bill to not only prohibit local right-to-work laws, but make it a Class A misdemeanor for any local official to defy the ban, punishable by up to a year in jail.

This bill was vetoed by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, and state lawmakers failed to override the veto by only one vote in October.

These political fireworks went on even though a federal judge struck down the ordinance months prior in January 2017, ruling it was preempted by the National Labor Relations Act. Under this interpretation, the NLRA only allows states to enact right-to-work laws, not local municipalities.

At oral arguments Tuesday, the Seventh Circuit appeared likely to uphold this reading of the NLRA, warning of the potential for “chaos” if every town has its own labor laws.

“It seems to me you are proposing to destroy a national system of labor relations,” U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood told Liberty Justice Center attorney Jacob Huebert, who represents Lincolnshire.

She said the village’s reading of the NLRA would require employers and unions to renegotiate contracts every time work shifted from one municipality to another, creating 7,000 different bargaining units in Illinois.

Huebert told the panel that “the state retains the right to delegate its sovereign authority to municipalities,” which Lincolnshire believes gives it the right to regulate the terms of labor negotiations within its borders just like it can regulate pollution, another area highly regulated by federal law.

But Judge Wood was not convinced.

“The power to regulate smokestacks is one thing,” she said. “The power to change national labor policy is quite another.”

James Coppess, attorney for union federation AFL-CIO, emphasized this same point in his arguments before the appellate panel.

“The idea that Congress would allow such chaos inside the state is counter-intuitive,” he told the court.

However, Coppess acknowledged that bargaining units are not entirely drawn along state lines, and Illinois employers manage to negotiate contracts despite the fact that neighboring states Wisconsin and Indiana both have right-to-work laws.

A finding in the union’s favor would create a conflict with the Sixth Circuit, but Coppess said a conflict already exists because the Kentucky Supreme Court, which is within the Sixth Circuit’s jurisdiction, has interpreted the NLRA to prohibit local right-to-work laws.

U.S. Circuit Judges William Bauer and Michael Kanne also sat on the panel.

The Seventh Circuit is expected to issue a ruling in this case within three months.

The case is not Lincolnshire’s only legal battle over its ordinance. The village was sued last month by a union member claiming his taxes unlawfully funded a lobbying group that pushed for the measure.

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