Seventh Circuit Upholds Weakening of Collective Bargaining Rights

Charles W. Miller & Associates

A recent Seventh Circuit case involving Wisconsin could have implications for Indiana collective bargaining agreements. In Laborers Local 236 v. Walker, the Seventh Circuit rejected a constitutional challenge to a controversial law that restricted the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. Wisconsin’s Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, was passed in 2011, purportedly to address an expected $3.6 billion budget deficit. The Act impacted public sector employees’ collective bargaining rights, along with compensation, retirement, health insurance, and sick leave. Notably, it prevented the state from even recognizing unions unless 51 percent of all potential members, not just those voting, supported the union in annual elections. Only police and fire department employees were exempted. Public sector employees charged the legislature and Governor Scott Walker with using Act 10 as a ruse to weaken their union protection, and that Act 10 was no meaningful budget solution.

The Act went through a series of legal challenges, including that it infringed upon federal constitutional protections, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendment. In September 2013, a district court judge rejected this argument, claiming that it did not violate the free association clause of the First Amendment because the First Amendment did not require an affirmative response from government entities, simply the absence of a negative restriction. Nor did the law impermissibly disadvantage represented employees — or those who chose to express their grievances by joining a union. The judge claimed that because union representation is not a suspect classification, it is only entitled to a rational basis review, the lowest standard required. Under that low standard, the state of Wisconsin had a rational basis for passing Act 10.

The public sector union employees appealed the ruling to the Seventh Circuit, and a three-judge panel upheld the lower court’s findings. They noted that the law is constitutional because it targets the actions of government officials rather than union members. The judges also stated that it did not forbid unions from forming or meeting, nor from advocating on behalf of their members. Union members, however, claimed that the ruling could have a farther-reaching impact than the judges may think.

Overall, the ruling suggests that the Seventh Circuit would approve of other state efforts to curb union protections, including in Indiana. At present, Indiana unions have managed to retain their rights, thanks to a state court judge striking down its “right to work” law. However, the Indiana Attorney General’s office has appealed to the state Supreme Court, and the case is currently under consideration. Yet even if the lower court’s ruling is upheld, those opposed to unions may find other ways to chip at them through the Seventh Circuit.

Charles W. Miller & Associates is an Indiana and Kentucky plaintiffs law firm serving residents of Kentucky and Indiana. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, the firm provides representation in the areas of personal injury and employment law. If you need a Kentucky or Indiana employment law attorney, contact us today for a free consultation.

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