Lake County judge declares right-to-work law unconstitutional

By Lesley Weidenbener
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – A Lake County judge has ruled the state’s right-to-work law unconstitutional, saying it requires unions to perform services for which they can’t be compensated.

Thousands of union members protested outside - and even more were inside - the Statehouse in 2012 as the Senate passed a right-to-work bill. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com

Thousands of union members protested outside – and even more were inside – the Statehouse in 2012 as the Senate passed a right-to-work bill. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com

However, Lake Superior Judge John Sedia did not order the state to stop enforcing the law. Instead, he delayed the ruling’s implementation until it could be appealed.

“It’s fundamentally unfair to ask people to do something for nothing, and that’s what this case was all about,” said John Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, which fought the law. “Indiana’s right to work law means you can get all the benefits of union membership – without joining a union.”

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller announced he will appeal the decision to the Indiana Supreme Court. His spokesman, Bryan Corbin, said the office will “aggressively defend the authority of the people’s elected representatives in the legislature as we successfully defended this same statute from the same plaintiff who challenged it in federal court.”

The right to work law essentially frees workers from paying fees to unions they don’t join. The Republican-controlled legislature passed it in 2012 over the objections of Democrats and labor leaders – as well as thousands of union members who protested at the Statehouse – who said the law would lead to lower wages and unsafe workplaces. Supporters said it would make Indiana a more attractive place to do business.

A northwest Indiana union and group of workers originally sued to stop the law in federal court. In January, Chief Judge Philip Simon of the U.S. District Court dismissed that lawsuit, saying the union failed to show it could win the suit at the federal level.

But the judge said the union could re-file in state court, which led to the new state court ruling.

In it, Sedia said the law violates Article 1, Section 21 of the Indiana Constitution, which reads that “no person’s particular services shall be demanded, without just compensation.” And he writes that federal law requires unions to negotiate, process grievances and provide other services to non-members.

“This is where the problem lies,” the judge wrote. Absent federal law, a union could refuse to provide services to workers who choose not to pay. Or, absent the right-to-work law, companies could demand payment for those services.

But the combination of the laws mean that “it becomes a criminal offense for a union to receive just compensation for particular services federal law demands it provides to employees,” Sedia said.

Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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