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Topics: Labor Unions

Court: First Amendment protections don’t allow unions to engage in nuisance lawsuits

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Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Judicial Branch,Appeals Courts,Analysis,First Amendment

Here’s a case worth keeping an eye on: the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that a union’s First Amendment rights do not allow it to engage in a pattern of legal harassment against a non-union business. Given that such legal campaigns are major tool of Big Labor, this case could have broad implications.

The case is Waugh Chapel South, LLC v. United Food and Commercial Workers. In it, the developer of a shopping center whose tenants included a Wegmans, a non-union grocery store, was sued 14 times by UFCW. Most of the cases involved challenges to permitting decisions and were dismissed or rendered moot. In one instance, the case was withdrawn after the developer subpoenaed the union’s financial records.

Waugh Chapel South alleged the cases reflected a pattern of harassment. In their complaint, the company said a union official promised to “fight every project you develop where Wegmans is a tenant.” UFCW countered that it had a First Amendment to make such complaints right under a 1965 Supreme Court case, United Mine Workers v. Pennington.

A three- judge panel rejected that argument. “In light of the poor litigation record and the signs of bad-faith petitioning, a factfinder could reasonably conclude that the unions have abused their right to petition the courts and, as a result, have forfeited the protection of the First Amendment,” they wrote.

This could potentially limit Big Labor’s ability to mount “corporate campaigns.” Those are when they put pressure on business leaders to agree to allowing a union rather than trying to organize the workers themselves.

“I think the courts are really trimming the unions’ sails,” said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for the pro-business Workforce Fairness Institute. “This is a pretty standard tactic for unions.”

Pat Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation agreed, but argued that the number of times the UFCW had to file frivolous cases before the court acted limits the ruling’s effectiveness. “If it takes nearly 20 legal actions before a court decides the union has gone too far, you could argue it’s not the most strenuous check,” he said.

A UFCW spokesperson could not be reached.

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