World and Nation

Supreme Court takes up challenges to union practices

Labor leaders and businesses are closely watching a Supreme Court case to be argued Wednesday that involves a popular strategy used by unions to successfully organize hundreds of thousands of workers.

That strategy — widely deployed by the Service Employees International Union and the Unite Here hotel workers union — involves pressuring an employer into signing a so-called neutrality agreement in which the employer promises not to oppose a unionization drive. By some estimates, more than half of the recent successful unionization campaigns involve such agreements, which sometimes allow union organizers onto company property to talk with workers.

Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor law at Harvard Law School, said the case before the Supreme Court was potentially “the most significant labor case in a generation.”

Sachs said that if the court ruled against labor, it could significantly hobble efforts by private sector unions to organize workers.

He added that the other big labor case the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this session could have a significant effect on public sector unions. In that case, a home-care worker has asked the court to rule that the state of Illinois violated her First Amendment rights by requiring her to pay “fair share” fees, much like dues, to a union she did not support.

In the case being argued on Wednesday, an employee of Mardi Gras Gaming in Florida sued Unite Here, asserting that its neutrality agreement with the company was illegal. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, finding that the agreement was a “thing of value” that federal labor law bars employers from giving to any union or union official.

Unite Here appealed, urging the Supreme Court to overturn the 11th Circuit and instead embrace rulings of the 3rd and 4th Circuits, which have held that such agreements were not illegal things of value.