Court Monitor

Stunning 5-0 Victory for the Right to Work

After a trial court struck down Indiana's Right to Work law as being in violation of the Indiana Constitution, unions had every reason to think they would win again at the Indiana Supreme Court. Instead, in a stunning 5-0 decision, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the Right to Work law, and reversed the trial court decision.

"We are deeply disappointed," declared International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150's president James Sweeney, who vowed to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the U.S. Supreme Court is not the final arbiter of the meaning of the Indiana Constitution. The Indiana Supreme Court is, and it resoundingly held in favor of the Right to Work law, which had passed over intense protests by union activists in 2012.

The Indiana High Court ruled that the Right to Work "law merely prohibits employers from requiring union membership or the payment of monies as a condition of employment." Zoeller v. Sweeney, 2014 Ind. LEXIS 893 (Nov. 6, 2014). In other words, a mandatory requirement of union membership cannot be imposed on workers. Employees must be free to choose whether to belong to a union or not.

Unions relied on an arcane provision in the Indiana Constitution, Article 1, Section 21: "No person's particular services shall be demanded, without just compensation. No person's property shall be taken by law, without just compensation; nor, except in case of the State, without such compensation first assessed and tendered." The union argued that under federal law, it must represent all the workers, yet Indiana's Right to Work law allows workers to opt out of a union, which must continue to represent them in collective bargaining with the employer. This, the union asserted, forces it to work without just compensation when employees are allowed to opt out of union dues.

The Indiana Supreme Court emphatically rejected the union's argument for multiple reasons. First, the Court said that the quoted provision of the Indiana Constitution restrains only state government, not the federal government. Compulsion under federal law is not restrained by this provision of the Indiana Constitution. Second, the Court observed that a union is not required by federal law to be an exclusive bargaining agent for all workers. "The Union's federal obligation to represent all employees in a bargaining unit is optional; it occurs only when the union elects to be the exclusive bargaining agent, for which it is justly compensated by the right to bargain exclusively with the employer," the Court found.

The authority of Indiana to enact its Right to Work law stems from the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which was one of the greatest conservative legislative triumphs in American history, passed over the veto of Democrat Harry S. Truman. This landmark federal statute, written by the brilliant Senator Robert A. Taft himself, gives states the authority to become a right-to-work state, and about half of the country has done so. It is remarkable that, 65 years after its enactment, the Taft-Hartley Act is still producing new conservative victories.