(Casino workers demonstrate on the Atlantic City, N.J., Boardwalk during contract talks with the gambling halls. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry))

Opinion: Supreme Court should protect rights of workers and unions

Could the future of labor unions be hanging in the balance?  Observers and experts seem to think so.  The Supreme Court just heard arguments in Unite Here Local 355 vs. Mulhall, and The Atlantic notes that that this case “could put a dagger in organized labor.”  Salon termed the case “(Justice) Scalia’s chance to smash unions.”  Professor Benjamin Sachs of Harvard Law School judged it possibly “the most significant labor case in a generation.”

These analyses are no exaggeration.  So let’s unpack the issues in Mulhall to understand why the case is significant ­– to Latinos and other Americans.

This dispute originated in South Florida in 2004, when Mardi Gras Gaming (a casino company) and Unite Here (the union) signed a “neutrality agreement.”  The casino agreed not to interfere with union organizing, to provide lists of their employees to the union, and to allow votes on union membership by signatures.  In exchange, the union promised not to picket or strike against the casino, and to help a gambling measure pass in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.  The union also spent about $100,000 in support of the gambling initiative.  But after it passed, Martin Mulhall, a casino employee, sued the union, saying the agreement violated federal labor law.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sided with him, and now the Supreme Court will have the final say.

Mulhall bases his case on Section 302 of the National Labor Relations Act.  It says that employers may not “pay, lend, or deliver… any money or other thing of value” to a union.  Because the neutrality agreement between the casino and the union benefitted the union, Mulhall asserts, it was a “thing of value” and thereby illegal.

But Section 302 has never been interpreted so broadly.  It was designed to protect against bribes and other forms of corruption, such as an employer giving a union official cash, property, or tangible gifts.  Lawyers for Unite Here note that the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is out of sync with other courts that have rejected Mulhall’s theory.  His argument is unreasonable because employers regularly provide “things of value” to unions, from hiring hall referrals to collective bargaining agreements.  Under Mulhall’s reasoning, not only would such actions be prohibited, they would be a crime.  A victory for Mulhall would produce upheaval in labor relations, because it would make it harder for unions and employers to work together, even if they wanted to.  This was not the legislative intent of Section 302, nor of the Act itself.

Mulhall could affect the ability of unions to organize among prospective new members – and that increasingly means Latinos.  The New York Times reports that union membership has fallen to its lowest level in nearly a century.  Only 11.3 percent of American workers are in labor unions.  The bright spot for unions is that they are gaining Latino members. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, organized labor added 156,000 Hispanic members in 2012.  Latinos may well be crucial to the survival of unions, which is no doubt one reason why organized labor has supported immigration reform.  And union membership is good for Hispanics as well; the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union workers earn on average $943 a week, while non-union workers make $742.

Mulhall is no David fighting the Goliath of a big union.  He is backed by the powerful National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation.  With Latinos concentrated in right- to-work states like Arizona, Texas, Nevada, and Florida, this group’s anti-union efforts impact millions of Hispanics.  Yet consider that the “neutrality agreement” at issue here never forced any workers to join Unite Here.  It simply gave them the right to vote on joining the union.

In Mulhall, the Supreme Court should rule for the union.  Labor/management cooperation is a policy worth promoting, and workers deserve the right to determine their own future.

Opinion: Supreme Court should protect rights of workers and unions raul reyes nbc final news NBC Latino News

NBC Latino contributor Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.

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