Law and Politics

Court Rules First Amendment Protects Public Sector Labor Union Employees From Discrimination Based on Union Membership

September 5, 2013
By Larry Cary

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a decision in State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition v. Rowland, finding that Connecticut violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution when it reduced the state’s unionized workforce in 2003 after the unions rejected the government’s demand that it agree to significant cuts in employee benefits. 

The First Amendment protects the right of government employees to associate – in this case be a member of a labor union – from discrimination absent a compelling interest for doing so. This is an important decision for public sector labor unions in New York because the Second Circuit covers New York as well as Connecticut.

In 2002, Connecticut demanded that its labor unions, representing 75 % of the state’s workforce, agree to health care and pension concessions or the state would terminate 3,000 union members.  The unions did not agree and proposed concessions in other areas that represented bigger savings than what was being demanded in the benefits area.  In 2003, 2800 unionized workers were fired.  Non-union state employees, who enjoyed the same benefit package, were not fired. 

In finding a violation of the First Amendment, the Second Circuit explicitly rejected the state’s argument that it had to threaten and layoff unionized employees in order to put pressure on the labor unions to agree to concessions in the negotiations.  The court found that while “hard bargaining” is permitted in contract negotiations, a layoff of unionized and non-unionized employees would have exerted considerable pressure on the unions because 75% of the layoffs would have been union members, but “for the state to fire union members – and union members alone – in the hope of ultimately achieving economic concessions is little different from refusing to hire union members in the first place,” which is unconstitutional.

In addition to remanding the case to the District Court with instructions to enter summary judgment against the state, the Second Circuit also instructed the court below to restore that part of the complaint seeking monetary damages personally from former Governor John G. Rowland and Marc S. Ryan, the Secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management.

Larry Cary is a partner in the labor law firm of Cary Kane LLP.


September 5, 2013

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