In an effort to have one cohesive labor law that governs the country, the National Labor Relations Act generally preempts labor regulation on the state and local level. There are exceptions, however, including the ability for states to adopt “right to work” laws. Surprisingly (and thankfully) the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that state exemption extends down to the local government, as well when it upheld a Hardin County, Kentucky right to work ordinance.
The NLRA allows businesses and labor to enter into “union security agreements,” where employees must either be members of the union or pay union dues. This prevents employees from reaping the (perceived?) benefits of organized labor without paying their fair share. But the NLRA also allows states to create exceptions to these rules called right to work laws that allow anyone to work regardless of union membership or dues paying. So in states that have not passed such right to work laws, some local governments have sought to step into their shoes by declaring union security agreements “unlawful, null, and void.”
In a case of near first impression, the Sixth Circuit had to wrestle with whether “State law” in the National Labor Relations Act also meant “local law.” Section 14(b) of the Act states:
Nothing in this Act shall be construed as authorizing the execution or application of agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment in any State or Territory in which such execution or application is prohibited by State or Territorial law.
According to the per curiam 3-judge panel, Sixth Circuit, “State law” can be treated the law of the state or any political subdivision. The court went on to cite City of Columbus v Ours Garage and Wrecker Service for more support:
Absent a clear statement to the contrary. Congress’ references to the ‘regulatory authority of a State should be read to preserve, not preempt, the traditional prerogative of the States to delegate their authority to their constituent parts. (Emphasis added)
What this means is that courts cannot presume that local governments are excluded from powers given to the state. Since the NLRA explicitly allows states to interfere in the federal government’s “integrated scheme of regulation,” as far as right t work laws are considered, there can be no finding of implicit field preemption.
Sounds like the Sixth Circuit came to a reasoned, correct decision.
Matt Austin who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm based in Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can call Matt at (614) 285-5342 or email him at Matt@MattAustinLaborLaw.com.