Federal Court Allows Employers to Muck Up Organizing Drives

It’s a sorry way to kick-off a week’s worth of labor activities leading up to International Human Rights Day, but then who said it had to be a walk in the park. Yesterday, a three-judge federal appeals panel in Chicago overturned a Milwaukee County ordinance that actually helped working people organize. The decision has national implications.


The now-moot ordinance, passed by the county Board of Supervisors  in 2000, had required that contractors paid more than $250,000 for services agree to remain neutral when facing efforts to organize their employees.


The ordinance was modest enough by union standards.


It did not require employers to recognize unions as a condition for winning county bids.


It did not require companies to bargain with unions.


It did not abrogate an employer’s right to manage.


All it required was that businesses performing county services had to remain neutral during organizing drives. That meant: no intimidation; no firings; no propaganda aimed at a captive audience; no dirty tricks. End of compliance requirements.


In return, contractors got a sweetener: a pledge from union organizers that there would be no work stoppages or strikes.


Sounds fair?  It sounds like a terrific business deal for all parties, not least for the county, which wanted to end work stoppages at companies like bus lines that provided critical county services for those with disabilities, seniors and others.


Well, not fair enough, it seems. The ordinance was opposed by the area’s business community, and the Milwaukee County Association of Commerce immediately filed suit.


Yesterday, Federal Judge Richard Posner, writing for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, nixed the ordinance. He concluded that the agreement was “a pretext to regulate the labor relations of companies that happen, perhaps quite incidentally, to do some county work.” The court ruled it an unconstitutional pre-emption of federal labor law, specifically the rights of the Bush-controlled NLRB to interpret labor law and labor standards. 


Note the author of this egregious decision is the same Judge Richard A. Posner who is heralded as a four-star public intellectual and expert on moral theory. One of the first Reagan appointees to the federal bench, he’s a major voice in the conservative “law and economics” movement, writing scholarly articles for the biggest of big-cheese venues, and with a frequency that others write blog entries if not text messages. Plus, the prolific Posner has his own Web site. With economic sociologist Gary Becker, he runs the right-leaning if maverick Becker-Posner Blog.    


The decision is not just bad; it’s dispiriting, too, given the history of the municipality it immediately affects. For much of two centuries Milwaukee was an old socialist town in a state where even the Republicans were progressives. It boasted a socialist mayor until the 1960s, and it sent Social Party leader Victor Berger to Congress. Now it has a different breed of pol. County executive Scott Walker told the Associated Press that the county’s own ordinance, installed by his predecessor, was “yet another example of the roadblocks  [the previous] administration put in front of job creation and growth” in the county.


We know the kinds of jobs that proliferate when unions cannot organize — Wal-Mart career opportunities are just one example — and when employers are not even compelled to remain neutral. So much for respecting human rights on the anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Even when you want to make peace, they make war.



Michael Hirsch is a staff writer for the New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers. This article appeared on Edwize, the UFT blog, on December 6, 2005.


Leave a comment