A federal district court has ruled that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) preempts a county government from enacting a right-to-work ordinance applicable only to that county. The decision from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky invalidates a local ordinance passed by Hardin County that permitted non-union employees to cease paying dues to labor unions under contractual union security agreements.

 As a general matter, right to work laws prohibit the enforcement of contractual union security agreements between a labor organization and an employer. Union security agreements require employees to make payments to a labor organization as a condition of employment.  Twenty-five states, including Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, have enacted right to work legislation on a statewide basis.

In United Auto Workers v. Hardin County, a group of labor unions filed a federal lawsuit seeking to invalidate Hardin County’s “Ordinance 300.” This ordinance made it unlawful to require any employee to become a member of a labor union or pay dues or other fees to a labor union as a condition of employment. Additionally, the ordinance restricted hiring-hall agreements, which require prospective employees to be recommended, approved, referred or cleared by or through a labor organization before securing employment, and contractual dues-checkoff provisions, which require employers to deduct union dues and other fees from employees’ paychecks.

According to the unions, the NLRA preempts any right-to-work legislation not specifically authorized by Section 14(b) of the NLRA, including the Hardin County ordinance.  Section 8(a)(3) of the NLRA expressly permits union security agreements under certain conditions. However, Section 14(b) of the NLRA carves out only one exception to Section 8(a)(3)’s exclusive federal regulation of union security agreements by authorizing “any State or Territory” to pass laws prohibiting those agreements. Therefore, according to the plain language of the NLRA, only statewide right-to-work legislation is permitted.

Judge David H. Hale agreed with the unions and invalidated Ordinance 300. He found that the county’s interpretation of “any State or Territory” to include any political subdivision of a state—such as a county, city or municipal government—is “not a logical reading” of the NLRA.  He determined that “State” law does not include county or municipal law or ordinances for purposes of Section 14(b) of the NLRA, and invalidated the ordinance’s right-to-work, hiring hall and dues checkoff provisions as preempted by the NLRA.

While the court’s ruling is not binding on an Illinois district court, the ruling is consistent with the weight of authority on Section 14(b). Therefore, it will likely receive deference from other federal courts called to review similar local ordinances, and may send a message to local governments considering similar local right-to-work legislation. For example, last week, four labor unions filed a federal lawsuit against the Village of Lincolnshire, challenging the Village’s adoption of a similar local right to work ordinance.  Additionally, the Hardin County ruling closely mirrors Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s interpretation of Section 14(b) of the NLRA. In March 2015, Attorney General Madigan issued a formal opinion finding that Illinois counties, municipalities, and other local governments cannot pass local “right to work” ordinances.  The Attorney General’s opinion relied on prior case law, including a federal ruling in New Mexico, and logic nearly identical to the Hardin County court.  Hardin County officials say they will appeal the ruling.