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Monday, February 18, 2019

It Takes a Village to Defeat a Union

Scabby the Rat is a familiar sight in certain parts of the country when a dispute breaks out between a union and an employer. He is notable both for his symbolic meaning and for his size—he is a giant, inflatable balloon, available in sizes up to 25 feet tall. Scabby made his appearance after Local 330 of the Construction and General Laborers’ Union learned that a masonry company working at Kolosso Toyota, in the Town of Grand Chute, Wisconsin was not paying area standard wages and benefits.

The Union decided to engage in informational picketing at the site and to set up Scabby in the median right of way directly across from the dealer, along the frontage road for on a major local thoroughfare. Union members installed a 12-foot version of Scabby by tethering the huge inflatable rat to stakes that had been pounded into the ground.

The protest went smoothly on the first day, but trouble began to brew when on the Town’s Code Enforcement Officer, went to the protest site and told the Local’s president that the Union would have to deflate Scabby because the rat violated the Town’s Sign Ordinance. When all was said and done, the Union was forced to remove Scabby from the scene and resort to other methods of protest. That was when the Union filed a legal action in Federal Court where it asserted that the Town’s 2014 Ordinance violated the First Amendment because it distinguished among signs on the basis of content. The Wisconsin federal judge denied its motion for a preliminary injunction and later entered summary judgment for the Town. The Union was seeking damages based on the fact that it had been forced to pay members to assist in the area-standards picketing and to draw greater resources from its organizing affiliate to staff and maintain the protest. 

Recently the 7th Circuit Court to Appeals heard the case and ruled, “We may uphold a law that restricts even protected speech in a public forum if the restriction is content neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and leaves open ample alternative ways to communicate the desired message. There is no doubt that a union’s use of Scabby to protest employer practices is a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. We also noted, however, that a municipality is entitled to implement a nondiscriminatory ban of all private signs from the public roads and rights-of-way. Grand Chute said that it had done no more than that. We agreed with the Town that its 2014 Ordinance was “comprehensive and content-neutral.” But that is not the end of the story. We pointed out that even a neutral ordinance can violate the First Amendment if it is enforced selectively, permitting messages of which the Town approves while enforcing the ordinance against unions and other unpopular speakers.”  In the end the Court held hat the Town did not discriminate on the basis of content when it ordered Scabby deflated.

Common Sense Counsel: When Unions are involved you can usually smell a rat. For Cities, look again at your sign ordinance in accordance with the guidance given by the Court in this case. There is no faster way for a city to watch its industrial life blood bleed out, than to allow unions to invade its industrial parks unhindered. For employers, conducting TIPS Training for your supervisors now is the best way to take preventive action. With regards to unions, under the National Labor Relations Act an employer can not Threaten, Interrogate, Promise or Spy (TIPS). Either way, its takes a village to defeat a union.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP office in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA can be contacted at teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901. Link to case at www.alabamaatwork.com