In another “chapter in the ongoing, national debate about the role that labor unions play in the modern workplace and the extent to which they may be regulated by both state and federal governments, on Monday, September 26, U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller entered an order upholding Wisconsin’s right to work law that was enacted in 2015. The lawsuit was brought by two local unions of the International Union of Operating Engineers claiming that the law violated the National Labor Relations Act and unconstitutionally took something of value from the unions without compensation. The union’s latter claim was based:
on the interplay between: (1) the union’s obligation under federal law to fairly represent all persons in the bargaining unit, and (2) Wisconsin’s prohibtion on the collection of representation fees. … In other words, the plaintiffs claim that in being compelled to provide equal representational services to non-dues-paying and non-representation fee-paying persons within their bargaining unit, [the Wisconsin law] effectuates a “taking” of their property.
Relying on the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision upholding Indiana’s right to work law, Sweeney v. Pence, 767 F.3d 654 (7th Cir. 2014), Judge Stadtmueller granted judgment in favor of the state. In Sweeney, the Seventh Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed dismissal of the challenge to Indiana’s similar right to work law on the grounds that it was not preempted by the NLRA, and while not necessary to its decision, concluded that the statute did not constitute a taking. The Seventh Circuit concluded that the Indiana law did not constitute an unconstitutional taking because:
“the union is justly compensated by federal law’s grant to the Union the right to bargain exclusively with the employer.” … In other words, Indiana’s right to work law did not constitute a taking because, under the NLRA, the plaintiffs’ federal duty to fairly represent all unit employees during the collective bargaining process was “compensated” by their exclusive “seat at the negotiation table.”
As the parties did not dispute, and the Court agreed, that Sweeney all but controlled the disposition of the case, the court found that the Wisconsin law was not preempted by the NLRA and did not work an unconstitutional taking.
Interestingly, a state circuit court struck down the law as unconstitutional in April, but the state appeals court put that ruling on hold in May as it considers the case.