By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld a controversial right-to-work law as constitutional after determining no union is required to represent a specific group of workers.
The unanimous decision ends two court challenges to the law and overturns decisions by two Lake County judges who had declared it unconstitutional. Those judges ruled the measure prevents unions from receiving “just compensation” – as spelled out by the Indiana Constitution – for providing services to non-union members.
But the state’s highest court said the union’s obligation to represent non-members is actually optional. “It only occurs when the union elects to be the exclusive bargaining agent, for which it is justly compensated by the right to bargain exclusively with the employer,” Justice Brent Dickson wrote in the opinion.
And the court also said any such compensation is only necessary when “the state demands particular services, not when the federal government does so.”
Four justices signed onto the majority opinion. Justice Robert Rucker wrote a concurring but separate opinion in which he argued “there may very well exist a set of facts and circumstances that if properly presented and proven could demonstrate that a union has actually been deprived of compensation.” But, he added, “this is not that case.”
The Indiana law 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.
“The ruling by our Supreme Court confirmed that the people’s elected representatives in the legislature were within their legal authority to craft an economic policy prohibiting involuntary union dues and this policy does not violate the Indiana Constitution,” Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement issued Thursday.
“Though Hoosiers have differences of opinion on this issue, we all should show respect for the court and the legal process by which laws are tested,” he said.
During oral arguments in September, the state’s solicitor general, Thomas Fisher, argued against the union’s interpretation of the “just compensation” provision of the state constitution.
He said the court should treat right-to-work like other laws that regulate relationships between individuals and companies – such as those involving car rentals or utilities. He said if the court ruled that the just compensation requirement applies to the unions, the state would likely face an “enormous number of challenges” involving other private transactions.
Unions had also challenged the right-to-work law in federal court but both a district judge and the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the state law did not violate federal law or the U.S. Constitution.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.