Seventh Circuit Nixes Local Right-to-Work Law

CHICAGO (CN) – Creating a circuit split, the Seventh Circuit ruled Friday that the National Labor Relations Act does not allow local municipalities to pass right-to-work laws.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The NLRA allows states to forbid compulsory union membership as a condition of employment. But Illinois, one of the last union-friendly states in the Rust Belt, has chosen not to enact such a law.

In 2015, the village of Lincolnshire, a far northern suburb of Chicago with a population of 7,000, took matters into its own hands and 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.

A federal judge struck down the law as preempted by the NLRA, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed that decision on Friday.

“A local union-security provision would seriously undermine the objectives of the NLRA in any state that has not taken advantage of section 14(b) to forbid agency shops,” U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood said, writing for the three-judge panel. Judges William Bauer and Michael Kanne joined the opinion.

“Construed the way the village would have it, the ordinance would put employers in and around the village in an impossible position,” Wood added. “An employer with offices within the village whose workers’ predominant job situs is outside the village in a jurisdiction without a comparable law would risk committing an unfair labor practice if it refused to bargain over an agency-shop provision. The same employer would risk civil or criminal penalties if it misjudged ‘predominant’ job situs and did bargain over an agency-shop rule, if most of its work was done within the village.” (Emphasis in original.)

She noted that Illinois alone has more than 7,000 local governments, and called it an “administrative nightmare” to imagine if every municipality had its own labor laws.

“The consequences for the uniformity of national labor law would be catastrophic,” the 24-page opinion states.

The ruling creates a circuit split with the Sixth Circuit, which ruled in 2016 that the NLRA allows political subdivisions to make their own laws regarding union security clauses.

This split makes it likely that the case will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Lincolnshire ordinance sparked uproar when it was enacted. Illinois’ Democratic Legislature responded by passing 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.

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