Cities, villages and counties don’t have the authority under federal law to impose local right-to-work rules on employers, workers and unions, a Chicago federal judge has said.

On Saturday, Jan. 7, U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly tossed out a right-to-work ordinance enacted by the village of Lincolnshire, siding with unions who argued federal labor laws did not give the village the power to regulate labor relations.

The judge said permitting local community governments, either cities or counties, to regulate labor agreements and union dues collections would result in a “patchwork scheme” that was not intended by lawmakers in enacting federal labor laws, including the National Labor Relations Act.

While the federal government has carved out exceptions for states and territories to enact laws exempting employers in their states from the need to comply with so-called “union security agreements,” or provisions in collective bargaining agreements which effectively allow unions to force employees working at certain companies and working certain jobs to join the union, and compel the employer to collect dues and fees from employees on the union’s behalf.

More than half of the states in the U.S. have enacted legislation under that exemption to become so-called “right-to-work” jurisdictions. This month, Kentucky became the 27th state to do so. In the Midwest, right-to-work states include Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. Missouri is the only state bordering Illinois which has not enacted right-to-work legislation.

In December 2015, the village board in north suburban Lincolnshire in Lake County voted 5-1 to enact an ordinance exempting private employers in the village from the “union security agreements” provision of federal labor laws, as well as compulsory dues collection requirements. In court documents, the village has argued it, as a “political subdivision” of the state of Illinois, should have the same rights to enact right-to-work legislation as the state itself.

Four unions sued, arguing the NLRA preempts the ability of villages and cities and other local governments from doing so, as the exemption is limited only to state governments.

Kennelly agreed. While he noted there is scant case law addressing the powers of local governments to enact right-to-work rules, the judge said he believed legal precedent has indicated Congress had intended the right-to-work exemption to apply narrowly only to states, as the NLRA has effectively created “a federal policy that favors permitting union security agreements.”

Kennelly acknowledged the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati had recently come to a different conclusion on that question. But the judge said he “respectfully disagrees with the Sixth Circuit’s determination of the point.”

“If the NLRA permitted local governmental entities to enact their own laws regarding union security agreements, ‘the result would be a crazy-quilt of regulations within the various states,’” Kennelly wrote, quoting language within the 1990 decision in N.M. Federation of Labor, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1564 v. City of Clovis.  

“And because unions often enter into agreements that cover employees across multiple cities and towns within a given state, these agreements would be subject to multiple, potentially conflicting, laws. This would make it difficult for unions to comply with local law and would create a strong ‘incentive to abandon union security agreements,’ thereby undermining Congress's creation of a federal policy in favor of such agreements.”

The unions, including the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399; Operating Engineers Local 150; Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters; and the Construction and General Laborers' District Council of Chicago, were represented by staff attorneys, the firms of Whitfield McGann & Ketterman, and Carmell Charone Widmer Moss & Barr, and G&R Public Law and Strategies, all of Chicago.

Lincolnshire was represented by attorneys with the Liberty Justice Center, of Chicago. 

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Organizations in this Story

Village of Lincolnshire
1 Olde Half Day Rd
Lincolnshire, IL 60069-3053

Whitfield, McGann & Ketterman
111 E Upper Wacker Dr
Chicago, IL 60601

IUOE Local #150
19800 W South Arsenal Road Wilmington, IL
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IUOE Local 399
2260 S Grove St
Chicago, IL 60616

Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters
211 East Ohio Street
Chicago, IL 60611

Construction & General Laborers' District Council of Chicago & Vicinity
999 McClintock Drive
Burr Ridge, IL 60527

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
219 S Dearborn St
Chicago, IL 60604

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
100 E 5th St
Cincinnati, OH 45202

Liberty Justice Center
190 South LaSalle Street
Chicago, IL 60603

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