The Right Is Trying to Bring Down Public Sector Unions. It May Bring Much More Down With It.

Originally published in The Intercept on February 25, 2018.
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In the middle of last week, Dixon O’Brien, a 60-year-old engineer, and his union, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, quietly filed a federal lawsuit against Lincolnshire, a village in a northern suburb of Chicago. Together they raised issue with Lincolnshire officials using taxpayer dollars to fund a statewide lobbying group, the Illinois Municipal League, which advocates for things like limiting collective bargaining and reducing pension benefits. “O’Brien objects to the use of his tax money to fund private organizations that lobby and/or engage in other political activities that run directly against his economic interests and his political beliefs,” the complaint reads.

On Thursday, the head of the same union filed a federal lawsuit against Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, challenging portions of state law that requires unions to provide representational services to non-dues paying members. “It is absurd that state law forces unions to provide equal representation and service to public sector workers who are not members and pay nothing toward associated costs,” said union President James Sweeney in a statement.

And then on Friday, the International Union of Operating Engineers Locals 139 and 420 filed a federal lawsuit against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, challenging a law he signed in 2011 that dramatically restricts public employee collective bargaining rights. The unions argue that the law’s restrictions impinge upon their protected free speech rights under the First Amendment.

These three consecutive lawsuits are a warning to the Supreme Court that if it buys into an extreme conservative argument being used to undermine labor unions, the justices are going to take a lot more than just agency fees down with them.

On Monday the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31 – a case experts have long predicted could strike a mortal blow to public sector unions. The plaintiff, an Illinois state worker named Mark Janus, has argued that he has a First Amendment right to avoid paying anything to a union that bargains on his behalf. With the current ideological leanings of the court, the plaintiff — and the conservative groups backing his lawsuit — face strong odds of victory.

But while most of the media has focused on the fact that the Janus case stands to decimate union coffers – and by extension, Democratic Party coffers – some labor activists and legal scholars have begun sounding the alarm on what they say would be the unintended consequences of the suit, effectively opening up the floodgates for countless lawsuits like the recent ones filed by the International Union of Operating Engineers. If Mark Janus doesn’t have to pay his agency fees because collective bargaining is speech he disagrees with, then collective bargaining is speech. And it can’t be restricted. Indeed, when some of the lazier advocates of Janus lay out the case, they accidentally argue on behalf of  unions’ right to free speech. “Because government is both employer and policymaker, collect­ive bargaining by the union is inherently political advocacy and indistinguishable from lobbying,” wrote George Will on Sunday, directly implicating the First Amendment.

For more than 40 years, the Supreme Court has held that there’s a constitutional difference between a union’s political activities and its collective bargaining work. Compelling workers to fund the former would infringe on their freedom of speech, the court ruled in the 1977. But under current law, collective bargaining is different. Imposing conditions, such as requiring mandatory dues, or limiting the scope of their negotiations to wages and benefits, is fair game.

If the Janus plaintiffs win their case, this critical distinction would be dismantled. (A decision is expected by June, when the court’s term ends.) A union’s bargaining and political lobbying would be treated the same — as protected free speech. In other words, the court would actually be elevating the free speech standards of bargaining. That, in turn, could bring with it new legal protections.

“If the plaintiffs are right that collective bargaining is political speech indistinguishable from lobbying, well, the flip side of that coin is that that protected free speech can’t be restricted,” said Ed Maher, a spokesperson for the International Union of Operating Engineers. “We don’t think this has been thoughtfully considered by the plaintiffs, and it is our belief that a win for Janus will open a tremendous Pandora’s box.”

This Pandora’s box, Maher suggested to The Intercept, holds all sorts of chaotic possibilities for the U.S. legal system and state governments across the country. Nearly all states impose some form of restriction on collective bargaining, limiting who can bargain and what workers can bargain over. If the Janus plaintiffs win in court, the theory goes, then workers could start bringing First Amendment challenges to limitations on their bargaining rights, like the restrictions Walker, the Wisconsin governor, passed in 2011.

And, as the three cases filed last week demonstrate, they’ve already started.

Courts have long sought to avoid applying First Amendment rights to unions. From the earliest court decisions that concerned worker protests in the 19th century, as labor writer and strategist Shaun Richman has written, judges have tended to treat unions “as criminal conspiracies that interfere with employers’ property and contract rights.” And while courts have chipped away further at the free speech rights of workers and unions over the last half-century, they have also expanded the free speech protections afforded to employers and corporations.

Ann C. Hodges, a labor law professor at the University of Richmond agrees that a win for the Janus plaintiffs could invite all sorts of new legal challenges. Writing recently for the American Constitution Society, Hodges said:

Courts have regularly ruled that states like Wisconsin can provide collective bargaining rights to some groups of employees and not others, using the rational basis test to find no equal protection violation… But if all union activity is protected political speech, then these distinctions implicate fundamental rights, invoking strict scrutiny for such classifications. Thus, the differential treatment of employee groups by the states may not survive. Indeed, unions may even have an argument that there is a constitutional right to collective bargaining.

Equally unlikely to survive are many governmental employer restrictions on employee speech. A long line of cases allows government employers to impose various restrictions on employee speech. The Supreme Court distinguishes employee from citizen speech, permitting employers to limit and control employee speech in the interests of the government as employer… A ruling in favor of the Janus plaintiffs could obliterate the distinction, requiring employers to tolerate much unwanted speech by their employees.

Some left activists remain understandably skeptical that Janus could lead to some interesting or even good opportunities for labor, arguing, as Richman wrote, that a judiciary that “that could buy such a craven argument as Janus will refuse to take the precedent to its logical conclusion and shamelessly waving away workers’ free speech rights.” But if the anti-Trump backlash leads to a wave of liberal judge appointments, the legal landscape could grow significantly more friendly for unions over the next few election cycles. Plus, unless Janus ends with an extremely narrow ruling, it would be a while before the Supreme Court could really stamp out all the knock-on cases, even if it wanted to. In other words, legal chaos could reign for years in the lower courts.

Richman goes so far as to say that Janus “could hand new liberal majorities a roadmap for restoring a legal balance of power between corporations and workers.” Or, as Sweeney of Local 150 puts it, “The free speech rights being invoked by the union-busters behind Janus work both ways.”

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California’s New Crisis Pregnancy Center Law Creates a Roadblock for Anti-Abortion Activists

Originally published in In These Times on October 30, 2015.
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Earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the nation’s first statewide law to regulate crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). CPCs are facilities that work to counsel women out of having abortions, offering them resources like diapers, baby formula and maternity clothes, but also often disseminating misleading or outright false medical information. Boosted by government funding under George W. Bush, they have proliferated over the past 15 years, with an estimated 3,500 nationwide—outnumbering real abortion clinics 3-to-1.

California’s Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency (FACT) Act, which overwhelmingly passed the state assembly in May, is being hailed as a landmark victory in a nationwide effort to push back against the rise of CPCs.

The new law, set to take effect January 1, will govern California’s nearly 170 CPCs, about 60 percent of which operate with no medical license. The law requires unlicensed facilities to post a notice—in “no less than 48-point type”—stating that they have neither a state medical license nor licensed medical staff. Licensed CPCs, for their part, will be required to inform women about available public assistance for contraception, abortion and prenatal care.

Whether or not the law can withstand a court challenge, however, remains to be seen. The decades-old movement to regulate CPCs has been repeatedly thwarted by First Amendment challenges.

Although CPCs began cropping up in the late 1960s as individual states lifted their bans on abortion, the clinics flew under the radar until the 1980s and 1990s, when they became a subject of a heated debate that went all the way to halls of Congress. Detractors argued that CPCs’ strategies to lure in women—such as offering free non-diagnostic ultrasounds and staffing their non-medical volunteers in white lab coats—amounted to false advertising. Defenders said their actions were protected speech.

The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996—or “welfare reform”—increased federal funding for abstinence education and helped to fuel the expansion of CPCs, as In These Times reported in 2002. The law enabled the Bush administration to funnel $60 million in federal abstinence-only funds to crisis pregnancy centers between 2001 and 2005, often doubling or tripling the centers’ annual budgets.

In response, a number of investigations into CPC practices were launched. A 2006 congressional investigation, initiated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), looked specifically at CPCs that received federal funding, and found that most provided women with false or misleading medical information, which “often grossly exaggerate[ed] the risks.” (Federal funding for CPCs continues today, despite the Obama administration’s efforts to end it.) NARAL, a national pro-choice organization, has also been investigating CPCs for more than a decade, and has discovered that staffers routinely overstated the risks of abortion or simply lied—telling women that ending a pregnancy would lead to infertility, breast cancer or even suicide. A 2008 NARAL investigation into 11 crisis pregnancy centers across the state of Maryland found that “every CPC visited provided misleading or, in some cases completely false, information.”

Drawing on the Waxman report and NARAL’s investigations, in 2009, Baltimore passed the first-ever legislation designed to curb CPCs’ misleading advertising practices. Challenging CPCs from a false advertising perspective was, in part, a strategic decision. As Slate’s Emily Bazelon reported in 2009, “There’s a whole branch of law, commercial speech, to explain why false advertising gets less First Amendment protection.” The law required Baltimore CPCs to display signs—in both English and in Spanish—clarifying that they do not provide abortion or birth control referrals. Similar laws were soon passed in New York City, Austin, and San Francisco.

These ordinances were all challenged in court on First Amendment grounds. CPC backers argue that the regulations violate their religious freedom and their right to free speech. Baltimore’s law was struck down in 2011 and is still tied up in court appeals. Austin’s was overturned, as were key aspects of New York’s law. Given their free services and nonprofit statuses, judges have tended to see CPCs’ speech as “noncommercial”—a designation that generally receives greater constitutional protection than commercial speech. But San Francisco’s law, which passed in 2011, has thus far withstood legal challenge.

Pro-choice advocates in California treaded very carefully in drafting the FACT Act. “We paid a lot of attention to the bills crafted in other cities,” says Amy Everitt, the state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California. NARAL also enlisted the help of Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat, to identify language that might be deemed unconstitutional.

Everitt explains that laws which require centers to post signs describing what they do not provide (such as abortion referrals) have tended to be more legally vulnerable than those that require facilities to distribute “neutral” information about available government services. So the FACT Act only requires licensed clinics to inform women of the many services available to pregnant women. In California, state Medicaid funds can cover the cost of an abortion, and millions of Californian women became eligible for Medicaid with the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

“In California, we have some of the best pro-choice policies in the whole country, but if women aren’t aware of what’s available to them, then they can’t use them,” says Everitt. “They need to find out about their options, and they need to find them out when they are actually out seeking care and information.”

Crisis pregnancy centers have already filed two suits against the Reproductive FACT Act. The law “is an outrageous and unconstitutional violation of both the right of free speech and the right of freedom of religion for our members in California,” said Thomas Glessner, the president of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, in an email quoted in Life News.“The Act unconstitutionally forces pro-life pregnancy centers, on pain of government penalty, to engage in government disclaimers that they would not otherwise provide.”

In response, Everitt notes that the state has a “public health interest” in ensuring that women can access high-quality reproductive care. “Women are seeking their options,” she says. “They are going online and they are looking for information to make their decisions about unintended pregnancy or pregnancy scares, and they were not getting the information they wanted in certain places like CPCs.”

Crisis pregnancy center advocates usually deny that CPCs mislead women, arguing that those who come to visit are well aware of the clinics’ anti-abortion slant. But investigations by reproductive-rights groups and Congress have found that CPCs often set up shop in close proximity to real reproductive health facilities and hide their anti-abortion agenda when women call seeking information. CPCs have also spent significant sums of money to advertise their services misleadingly in newspapers, on billboards, on social media and through Internet search engines.

While the fate of California’s new law remains uncertain, energized advocates are determined to build on their newfound political momentum. Everitt says she hopes their new law will serve as a model “for every state to pursue.”The new measures are “what it looks like to respect women,” adds Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.“Empower us and trust us to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families.”