The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled a Wisconsin right to work law is constitutional, largely because it closely resembles an Indiana law the same circuit already tested and upheld.

The case on appeal was a complaint brought by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 and Local 420 against Wisconsin state officials in federal court in Wisconsin. Federal Judge J.P. Stadtmueller ruled against the unions, citing precedent established in the 2014 Seventh Circuit decision in Sweeney v. Pence, a challenge to Indiana’s 2012 right to work law.

Seventh Circuit Judges Joel M. Flaum, Frank H. Easterbrook and Michael S. Kanne heard arguments June 2 and issued a decision July 12. The Seventh Circuit includes federal courts in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.

 

The Indiana law prohibits employment contracts that require people to maintain union membership or force workers to pay union dues. In 2014, the Seventh Circuit ruled against the union’s argument the state law was pre-empted by the National Labor Relations Act. At the time, the judges found “express allowance of state laws prohibiting agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment necessarily permits state laws prohibiting agreements that require employees to pay representation fees.”

The panel also found the Indiana law did not suppress Fifth Amendment rights because, although the NLRA requires unions to represent nonpaying members, the federal law protecting their right to bargain exclusively with employers is just compensation.

Wisconsin enacted its law after Indiana’s law met the scrutiny of the Seventh Circuit. According to the July 12 opinion, IUOE acknowledged before Stadtmueller — and conceded on appeal — “that Sweeney controls the preemption analysis in this case and dictates an outcome in favor of Wisconsin.” As such, the union’s only argument was that Sweeney was wrongly decided, essentially looking to the Seventh Circuit to both overturn the district court’s ruling in its complaint and reconsider its opinion from three years earlier.

The union noted Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Diane P. Wood wrote a strong dissent to Sweeney, and that a vote to rehear the case before all the circuit judges was close.

“Such facts, however, are not compelling reasons to overturn a recent decision,” Flaum wrote. “Furthermore, IUOE points to no intervening developments in statutory, Supreme Court, or even intermediate-appellate-court law between Sweeney and today that undermine Sweeney’s validity. In sum, IUOE does not provide any compelling reason to revisit Sweeney, and we decline to do so.”

In reviewing Stadtmueller’s consideration of the union’s stance the Wisconsin law violated its Fifth Amendment rights by taking property without compensation, the judges noted the union brought that claim in federal court before seeking compensation in state court. Stadtmueller said although such claims are usually deemed not ready to proceed, the union’s claim was ready because it made a pre-enforcement facial challenge to the state law. He therefore dismissed the claim without prejudice.

On cross appeal, the state argued Stadtmueller should have found the claim unripe and dismissed without prejudice. However, the judges said Stadtmueller’s finding was correct because the union’s complaint did indeed target the state law as unconstitutional as it was written rather than on how it was applied.

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