U.S. Court of Appeals Rules that First Amendment Did Not Require the State to Keep Collective Bargaining Rights for Public Employee Unions

Wisconsin has a long history of protecting private and public labor unions. In fact, before 2011, Wisconsin granted broad protections and privileges to public-sector unions. This all changed when the Wisconsin legislature passed a new budget bill known as Act 10. This act reduced state and municipal employers’ collective-bargaining obligations to non-public safety employees in the public sector.

In a lawsuit brought by two public employee unions and an individual union member, the defendants argued that the changes by the Wisconsin legislature infringed on their First Amendment petition and association rights, and that Act 10 denied the union members equal protection under the law.

The U.S. District Court granted the state’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and the unions, the plaintiffs, brought this appeal.

The appeals panel first looked at the petition clause argument brought by the union. The union maintained that Act 10’s collective bargaining prohibition violated the members’ rights to petition the government for remedies for their grievances.

The court found that the case of Minnesota State Board of Community Colleges v. Knight, 465 U.S. 271 (1984), was right on point. The reasoning was that nothing in Act 10 prevented the unions or their members from expressing their views to their municipal employers or from trying to persuade the employer to adopt a particular policy.

The appellate court then addressed the unions’ right of association claims. The court was not impressed with the arguments that Act 10 somehow prohibited unions from forming that disadvantaged employees who choose to join a union and did not tell a union how to conduct its internal affairs.

The court’s opinion concluded that the First Amendment did not require the state to maintain policies to allow certain associations to thrive.

The court stated that unions could not utilize the First Amendment to force the state of Wisconsin to engage in a dialogue or continue the state’s previous policies.

The last argument that the court weighed was that Act 10 disadvantaged employees who choose to join a union as opposed to those who declined to do so. The union argued specifically that under Act 10, local governments were prohibited from making binding agreements with a general employee bargaining representative and was not prohibited in making such agreements with individual employees; the employees represented by a union were disadvantaged. The court rejected that argument as well.

The unions maintained that under the equal protection clause of the Constitution that Act 10 unfairly treated union members differently. The panel stated that union members still posses every right that the state grants to their colleagues who elect not to join a union.

And finally, the court of appeals concluded that Act 10’s collective bargaining restriction was acceptable under rationale basis review. Accordingly, the court of appeals affirmed the decision of the district court dismissing the First Amendment challenge.

Laborers Local 236, AFL-CIO, et al. v. Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, et al., No. 13-3193 (U.S. 7th Cir., April 18, 2014).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling business litigation matters and employer-employee disputes for individuals and businesses for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Bridgeview, Alsip, Arlington Heights, Antioch, Hinsdale, Morton Grove, Matteson, Mount Prospect, Frankfurt, Wheeling, Waukegan, Joliet, Bolingbrook, Romeoville and Justice, Ill.

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