Supreme Court ends union effort to silence employers

On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court (by a 7-2 decision) struck down a California law imposing so-called “union neutrality” requirements on employers in the state.

The law limited what employers could say about union organizing campaigns in the workplace.

The high court’s ruling should be the final stake in the heart of a similar union-backed proposal here in Washington.

Remember, Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) took the issue off the table last legislative session pending the outcome of the California case.

In its long-awaited decision in Chamber of Commerce v. Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a law that limits employer speech during union organizing efforts runs afoul of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens — considered to be the most liberal of the high court justices — said that employers have an inherent right to engage in “free debate on issues dividing labor and management” and that Congress expressly intended to leave this area unregulated when it passed the NLRA.

In addition, the Court noted that the NLRA “expressly precludes regulation of speech about unionization” so long as the communications do not threaten or promise anything to the employee.

A proposed law being pushed by the AFL-CIO in Washington is even broader than the invalid California law.

Backers claim the Washington measure is needed to prohibit employers from forcing their religious and political views on their employees.

That’s just a smokescreen. What labor leaders want is to restrict employer opposition to unionization.

Employers rarely, if ever, hold meetings to talk about religion, and the Washington state measure’s language about political issues is astonishingly broad.

It bans employer communications about “…matters directly related to candidates, election officials, ballot propositions, legislation, election campaigns, political parties, and political, social, community, and labor or other mutual aid organizations.”

There goes the United Way campaign. But that’s collateral damage: The real target is union organizing.

Traditionally, in union organizing efforts, both union representatives and employers provide workers with competing views so the workers can make an informed choice.

But the AFL-CIO’s so-called Worker Privacy Act would force employers to the sidelines, while the union remains unfettered.

In effect, it essentially imposes a gag rule on employers and goes a long way toward prohibiting any communication about union organizing efforts to employees in staff meetings, e-mails or any other “required” communication.

Like the California statute, the Washington proposal was a trial lawyer’s dream.

It would let employees decide for themselves which employer communications (meeting notices, e-mails, etc.) violate the law and can be safely ignored.

Employers who run afoul of the law face lawsuits and punitive damages, and employees who inappropriately invoke the law and ignore employers’ legitimate directives cannot be punished.

Even though the Washington version of an employer gag rule has not yet become law, it has already sent a clear anti-business message to employers who are considering expanding or relocating to our state: “Employers who want fairness and free speech in the workplace are not welcome here.”

But in striking down the California employer gag rule, the U.S. Supreme Court’s message is equally clear: Employees have a right to receive information opposing unionization.

Unions in our state are expected to launch a campaign between now and the 2009 legislation session to convince legislators that their proposal is different than California’s debunked law.

But lawmakers should not waste their time or taxpayers’ money on this proposal.

The Supreme Court’s decision has clearly put an end to Washington’s employer gag rule.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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