Court to decide whether unions have too much freedom to organize

March 19, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether the National Labor Relations Board is giving labor unions too much freedom to carry on handbilling and other organizing tactics on companies' private property.

A shopping center case from the Hartford, Conn., area will provide a major test of the NLRB policy that defines when a union trespasses illegally on company property.

Known as the "Jean Country" policy, it came out of an NLRB decision in September 1988 in a case of that name. In that ruling, the board laid down a new policy which says that a union must be allowed to go on private property to organize workers if it has no other effective way of reaching the workers.

A New England retail chain, Lechmere Inc., complained that the policy contradicts the Supreme Court's basic decision in 1956 putting limits on the rights of union organizers on private property.

The NLRB's policy, Lechmere's appeal argued, puts the primary stress on the union's ability to get its organizing message across successfully to a company's employees. The 1956 court ruling, however, does not require that a union communications campaign be effective, according to the appeal.

The NLRB has ordered Lechmere to stop interfering with handbilling and employee contact by organizers of Local 919 of United Food and Commerce Workers Union at a shopping mall in Newington, a suburb of Hartford.

After the union had no success contacting workers through ads in the Hartford newspaper, it sent its organizers to the shopping center's parking lot to contact workers directly. Lechmere has a flat policy against any solicitation, in the parking lot or in the store there, so it called police when the organizers showed up.

The union took the case to the NLRB, contending that the store chain was interfering illegally with the workers' rights to organize by joining a union. The board concluded that the union had no practical alternative to the trespass technique, so it had a right to engage in that approach to organizing. A federal appeals court agreed.

Lechmere's appeal to the Supreme Court was supported by the Council on Labor Law Equality, an employer group that monitors NLRB policy and actions. The council said that the board's Jean Country policy, applied in several cases, represents a "nationwide abuse of its authority" by failing to give an employer the "right to be free from interferences upon his property."

The court will hold a hearing next fall or winter on the case (Lechmere vs. NLRB, No. 90-970), and issue a final decision by next summer.

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