- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Supreme Court justices questioned yesterday whether a state should be able to prohibit employers from using state money to influence employees’ views on unions in their workplace.

The Chamber of Commerce and the Bush administration argue that California is trying to silence employers from weighing in on union-organization efforts. They say that position isn’t permitted by federal labor law, which allows employers to be involved as long as they don’t threaten reprisals.

The outcome of the case could affect attempts by other states to restrict use of state money for union-related activities.

California contends that its 2000 law, the first of its kind in the nation, simply seeks to ensure that the state doesn’t subsidize an employer’s pro- or anti-union activities, allowing California to maintain a neutral position in labor disputes.

California’s law has been followed by similar attempts in other states, including New York, which passed a more limited version. Union activists and pro-union lawmakers elsewhere are waiting for the outcome of the California case before deciding how to proceed.

Justice Antonin Scalia ridiculed the notion that California’s law is neutral.

“I think the reason you’re not paying for this activity is because you don’t like this activity,” Justice Scalia declared.

“That’s not true,” interjected Michael Gottesman, a Washington lawyer arguing on behalf of California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr., who also is a former governor of the state.

“I call that regulating,” Justice Scalia said.

Mr. Gottesman disagreed. “The taxpayers’ money should not be spent supporting one side and not the other in these disputes,” he said. Employees don’t have access to state money for unionization activities, California argues in its briefs, so employers shouldn’t either.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. also seemed to question the notion that California’s law is neutral when he noted that “precious few” employers take the side of unions.

California got support from Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, who both questioned why California shouldn’t be able to determine how its money is spent.

Justice Ginsburg remarked several times that Congress has passed laws limiting federal use of money for union activities, so why shouldn’t California be able to do the same.

Just because Congress can do something doesn’t mean states can, responded Willis J. Goldsmith, representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“The state has no business making labor policy,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “This statute is anything but neutral.”

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