Court upholds California law prohibiting government officials from discouraging union membership

A union-backed California law that prohibits government officials from discouraging their employees from joining unions or paying union dues was upheld on Monday by a federal appeals court against a challenge by local officials who said the law intimidated them from denouncing the unions.

The law was originally passed in 2017 to prohibit state and local agencies and officials from preventing or discouraging workers from joining a union. After the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that non-union government employees in about two dozen states, including California, could not be required to pay unions fees for representation costs in labor negotiations, state lawmakers added a ban on discouraging the public. workers to pay union dues.

The law was challenged by seven city council members and school officials in Southern California, who said it violated their freedom of speech. They said they have previously discussed union-management issues in public hearings and election campaign appearances, but have refrained from mentioning unions or related topics in public since 2017-18. lest their positions be given to their employers, who could face penalties under the law.

But the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the lawsuit was based on speculation and premature at best, because the law does not apply to individuals like the seven officials.

The state’s Public Employment Relations Board, which enforces the law, said in a court filing that comments by an individual elected official at a campaign event “cannot reasonably be considered the speech of a public employer. “, said the court. He said the filing contains the same disclaimer for remarks at a meeting of a public body such as a school board, as long as other board members are present and the person is not speaking. not on behalf of the whole board.

There is no evidence of a ‘credible threat’ that the law would be enforced against people who challenged it, the panel said in a 3-0 ruling that upheld a federal judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit . The court said they could file a new lawsuit if they did face execution.

The panel was made up of judges Consuelo Callahan, John Owens and Danielle Forrest.

A lawyer for local officials said the decision was disappointing but not a complete defeat.

“The good news is that the court clarified that elected officials can criticize union policies in public hearings, during the campaign trail and in discussions with voters,” said Terence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights. “The bad news is that elected officials can be investigated by the state any time a union wants to file a complaint.”

For example, said David Schwarz, another attorney for local officials, last March the Public Employment Relations Board prohibited University of California regents or their representatives from “dissuading or discouraging” employees or job applicants. a UC job from joining a union or allowing union dues or fees. .

The officials were members of the San Clemente and Mission Viejo city councils, both in Orange County; Capistrano Unified School District and Rancho Santiago Community College District, also in Orange County; the Whittier Union High School District in Los Angeles County; the Ramona Unified School District in San Diego County and the Rossmoor Community Service District in Orange County.

Matthew Murray, the unions’ lawyer in the case, declined to comment on the decision.

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @BobEgelko

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