The debate over the constitutionality of Indiana’s right-to-work law may finally be over. In Zoeller v Sweeney (No. 45S00-1309-PL-596, November 6, 2014), the Indiana Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that had held Indiana’s right-to-work statute unconstitutional. Charles B. Baldwin and Todd M. Nierman, shareholders in the Indianapolis office of Ogletree Deakins filed an amicus curiae brief to the Indiana Supreme Court on behalf of the Indiana Legal Foundation. The court ruled that the law does not constitute a demand by the State of Indiana that a union provide its services free to workers who do not pay dues, and therefore the law is constitutional. The court reversed the ruling of a Lake County, Indiana state court judge.

Indiana’s right-to-work law was signed by former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels on February 2, 2012. The law prohibits unions and employers from entering into collective bargaining agreements under which employees are required to join a union or to pay dues to a union. Three lawsuits were filed challenging the law’s constitutionality under both the U.S. and Indiana constitutions.

One suit was filed by the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150 in a federal district court. On September 2, 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s dismissal of that case under the U.S. constitution (Sweeney v. Pence). The other cases were filed in state court in Lake County, Indiana by the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150 and the United Steelworkers union respectively. On September 13, 2013, the state court judge in the Operating Engineers case (Sweeney v. Zoeller) ruled the law unconstitutional under the Indiana Constitution. On July 17, 2014, in the Steelworkers case (Steelworkers v. Zoeller), a different judge in Lake County also ruled the law unconstitutional on the same grounds. The courts ruled that the law violates a somewhat unique provision of Indiana’s constitution that prohibits the state from demanding that services be rendered without just compensation. Both cases were appealed by the State of Indiana directly to the Indiana Supreme Court. 

The Steelworkers case is fully briefed and remains pending at the court. Since it presents the same issue ruled upon in the Operating Engineers case, one would assume the Steelworkers case will be dismissed on the same grounds without oral argument. 

Key Takeaways

Any time a new labor law is passed and then challenged on constitutional grounds, unions and employers directly impacted by the law are left to charter murky waters without direction. In the case of Indiana’s right-to-work law, labor and management relations could not be put on hold. Unions and employers continued to bargain collectively for new agreements during the pendency of the litigation over the constitutionality of the law. This has made for some difficult and, at times, impossible negotiations. With this issue now settled, unions and employers can come to the bargaining table with a common understanding of the law under which they are negotiating. That is a good thing regardless of one’s perspective on the right-to-work debate.