Jim Dey | Service-workers union opens second front in fight with UI


Three University of Illinois employees asked to speak at the March 17 meeting of the board of trustees.

“I would like to request to speak … about our treatment and unfair negotiations here at UIUC,” wrote Dena Gary, president of Service Employees International Union Local 73.

Two other union employees — Kelsey Hayes and Michael Lindley — submitted similar letters. Their requests were denied.

“Because your proposed topic deals with issues under negotiation as part of the university’s collective-bargaining process, I am unable to approve your request,” board Secretary Greg Knott responded.

SEIU members have made no secret of their unhappiness with the UI’s negotiating stance. The union is prepared to strike if the two sides cannot reach an agreement.

But the SEIU has expanded its battle with the university, recently filing a federal lawsuit alleging the UI is violating the free-speech rights of its members by refusing to allowing them to address the board.

“By prohibiting the public, including the union and the employees it represents, from engaging in public comments on issues related to labor relations and collective bargaining, the board of trustees is engaging in unreasonable content-based restriction on speech that violates the rights of the public,” states the lawsuit filed by Chicago lawyer David Huffman-Gottschling.

Filed at the U.S. District Court in Urbana, the lawsuit seeks, among other things, a legal declaration that the UI’s rule violates the free-speech clause of the First Amendment.

It asked the court to “permanently enjoin” the UI board from enforcing its restriction.

The disputed rule states, in part, that the board “will not hear presentations or entertain questions on … issues under negotiation as part of the university’s collective-bargaining process.”

The lawsuit noted the UI board is a “public body” that provides for public comments at its meetings. Because of that, the lawsuit alleges, any limitations on speech must meet the “strict scrutiny” legal test by being “narrowly drawn” and “serve a compelling state interest.”

The lawsuit alleges the UI rule fails on both grounds. The claim that the UI is engaging in a “content-based” restriction refers to the prohibition on public bodies improperly picking and choosing the types of speech it will hear.

Although public bodies have a broad responsibility to hear expressions of public opinions, that duty has limits.

That’s why the lawsuit’s reference to union members’ desire to “address labor relations, unfair negotiations, employees treatment and employees’ concerns” will be at the center of the legal arguments.

Urbana lawyer Steve Beckett said the speech issue overlaps with laws governing collective bargaining that set out the negotiating process.

“The union wants to come to the meeting and tell all the world its side of the story,” he said.

But Beckett said courts could rule that collective-bargaining laws “establish the proper channels,” and the forum of a board of trustees meeting is not one of them.

He described the lawsuit as one that creates a First Amendment “wrestling match.” While it’s understandable that union members might want to use the trustees meeting as a public platform, he said, “I understand the basis of the UI’s rule.”

UI labor Professor Michael LeRoy was more emphatic.

“I do not think (the union’s speech) is protected,” he said.

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Pickering vs. Board of Education, he said rules protecting speech on issues of public concern are different from speech that can be construed as employee “grievances.”

“This would fall in the bucket Pickering calls ‘employee grievances.’ … The board could allow it, but it does not have to do so under Pickering,” LeRoy said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

via The News-Gazette

May 19, 2022 at 08:44AM

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