On Nov. 18, 2016, the 6th Circuit issued an opinion that local governments are a political subdivision of their state and, therefore, may enact right-to-work laws. United Auto., Aerospace & Agric. Implement Workers of Am. Local 3047 v. Hardin Cnty., Ky., No. 16-5246, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 20654 (6th Cir. Nov. 18, 2016). This ruling means that a local government has the ability to enact a law guaranteeing that no person can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or pay dues to a union.

Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which amended the National Labor Relations Act, has always permitted states to enact right-to-work laws. Twenty-six states have taken this action, but Ohio and Kentucky have not. Because Kentucky would not pass statewide right-to-work laws, Hardin County took it upon itself to enact them at the local level. Many other counties followed. Initially, Hardin County lost in the federal district court, as the judge concluded “State” meant only the state and not any political subdivision of it. The 6th Circuit reversed that portion of the decision, finding that a local government (e.g., a city or county) is included in the term “State.”

The Implications are:

  1. Compulsory unionism can be decided at a local level. Political subdivisions will be able to choose whether to become right-to-work, even if their state is not.
  2. The union will still have to represent all employees, even those that choose not to join or pay dues.

While this decision is limited to the 6th Circuit (Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee), it is the first of its kind and could be applied across the United States. The case could ultimately end up before the United States Supreme Court. While it is a potentially groundbreaking decision, note that it does not apply to employers and employees covered by the Railway Labor Act and would not apply to federal government employees. Further, the 6th Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling that the portions of Hardin County’s ordinance prohibiting hiring hall agreements and dues checkoff provisions are unenforceable.