Local Right to Work Zones Ruled Illegal

In a decision on Wednesday, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits local units of government from enacting “right-to-work” zones.

David Hale was the presiding U.S. District Court Judge to rule on “right-to-work” ordinances that were passed in more than 10 Kentucky counties. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) were the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the defendant counties. In his decision, Judge Hale notably wrote:

  • As the plaintiffs observe, it makes little sense to read “State or Territorial law” as encompassing local law…
  • In their arguments, the defendants skip past the statute’s reference to “any State or Territory.” Instead, they rely on carefully selected quotations from two Supreme Court cases unrelated to the NLRA…
  • The defendants maintain that dues checkoff is part and parcel of compulsory union membership. … The defendants again offer no authority to support their position and instead ask the Court to depart from the precedent cited by the plaintiffs. The Court again declines to depart from well-established precedent.

Lincolnshire, Illinois (a village of just over 7,000 residents) passed a right-to-work ordinance in December 2015 which mirrors the county ordinances that were just struck down in Kentucky. That ordinance is now likely considered illegal.

“Right-to-work” is actually a government regulation that prohibits workers and employers from including specific clauses in private contract negotiations. These provisions, called “union security” or “fair share” clauses, ensure that each member who benefits from union coverage provides a proportionate share of dues or fees. Like any other private deal, when one party provides a service – in this case, the union providing a higher wage or health insurance benefits or legal assistance – those receiving the service have to pay to use it. Workers have been allowed to opt out of paying portions of their dues that go toward political activities since at least 1988.

“Right-to-work” therefore has nothing to do with the right of an individual to seek and accept gainful employment or of an individual to have political free speech. Those are separate issues entirely.

In his first “State of the State” address, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner proposed allowing local right-to-work ordinances. The Governor claimed that local right-to-work zones would “increase jobs for residents, increase economic activity for local businesses and generate more tax dollars for local governments.” The presupposition was that unionization suppresses job growth.

When asked by state officials to evaluate the legal merits of these proposed right-to-work zones, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued an opinion that aligned with the recent decision of Judge Hale: “[T]he National Labor Relations Act preempts counties and municipalities, as well as other political subdivisions of the State, units of local government, and school districts, from adopting local ordinances that regulate the use of union security agreements in all instances.”

But local “right-to-work” ordinances are also bad economic policy. In a 2015 evaluation of the efforts to create the zones, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that right-to-work zones would have negative economic consequences for Illinois.

If half of the state’s counties (excluding Cook County) adopted right-to-work ordinances, the economy would shrink by $1.5 billion and state and local tax revenues would be reduced by $80 million. Within Illinois’ counties, higher unionization rates have no negative impact on employment growth or business growth.

If half of Illinois’ counties suddenly became “right-to-work,” labor unions would also be expected to lose approximately 200,000 members. This membership loss would worsen income inequality because unions in Illinois particularly improve wages for women and racial minorities.

Unions Race Gender Illinois

We knew that local right-to-work ordinances were unsupported by economic data and analysis.

Now we know that they are also illegal.




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