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A recent California Supreme Court case yielded a favorable decision for unions that engage in lawful union disputes on an employer’s private property.  The Court reversed a lower Court of Appeals decision, in which the appellate court ruled that two California anti-injunction statutes regarding labor activities were unconstitutional.  The new decision seemingly signals the California Supreme Court’s reluctance to infringe on otherwise lawful union activities that occur on an employer’s private property during union disputes between employers and their employees.

Engaging in Union Activities in California

The ability to engage in picketing and other lawful union activities during labor disputes originates from the California state constitution.  California Constitution Article 1 §2(a) states that “every person may freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of this right.”  In 1975, the California Legislature passed the Moscone Act.  The Moscone Act provides that certain labor activities are legal and cannot be enjoined, such as peaceful picketing and communicating information about any labor dispute where “any person may lawfully be.” Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 527.3(b). The Moscone Act prohibits unlawful conduct, including breach of the peace, disorderly conduct, the unlawful blocking of access or egress to premises, or other similar activity. In addition to the Moscone Act, California Labor Code Section 1138.1 prohibits a court from issuing an injunction during a labor dispute unless certain requirements are met. These include, among other things, testimony by witnesses establishing that unlawful acts have been threatened or will be committed unless legally restrained, substantial and irreparable injury to complainant’s property, or a finding that police cannot or will not offer adequate protection.

Ralphs Grocery Co. v. UFCW Union, Local 8

In Ralphs Grocery Co. v. United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 8, members of the union began picketing a Ralphs retail center in Sacramento because store’s employees were not represented by a union and did not have a collective bargaining agreement.  Ralphs notified the union of its policy prohibiting speech activities on or near it property, which the union ignored.  Ralphs asked the Sacramento police to remove the union’s members from the store, but the police declined to act without a court order. Ralphs then filed suit against the Union seeking, among other things, a preliminary injunction.

Initially, the trial court ruled that the Moscone Act violated the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments because it favored labor speech over other types of speech.  However, it also found that Ralphs presented insufficient evidence it was or would suffer substantial and irreparable injury to the store property from the picketing, a necessary element for injunctive relief under the anti-injunctive provisions of section 1138.1.

On appeal the Court of Appeal for the Third Dist.rict of California reversed and remanded, ordering the trial court to grant the preliminary injunction because the entrance area to the Ralphs store was private property and, as a result, did not constitute a public forum under the California Constitution’s liberty of speech provisions. The appellate court similarly ruled that both the Moscone Act and Section 1138.1 violated the U.S. Constitution.

On the union’s subsequent petition for review to the California Supreme Court, the Court reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision. While agreeing that Ralphs’ entrance was private property, the Court disagreed that the Moscone Act and Labor Code section 1138.1 are unconstitutional because they favor one form of speech over another. The Court concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court cases upon which the Court of Appeal relied, in ruling that the statutes were unconstitutional, were inapplicable because they involved laws that restricted speech in a public forum.   In contrast, as the California Supreme Court reasoned, the Moscone Act and Section 1138.1 do not explicitly restrict speech,  and the speech occurred on private property where labor-related speech has been permitted under federal law.

Undoubtedly, with the challenges to the constitutionality of the Moscone Act and Section 1138.1, this latest California Supreme Court decision has the potential to reach the U.S. Supreme Court through writ of certiorari.  So while the decision may not be the final one regarding this dispute, it demonstrates the California jurisprudential stance favoring legal labor union activities on an employer’s private property.

California continues to be one of the most labor union friendly jurisdictions, which bodes well for employees who choose to join and participate in a union.  Please contact the Law Office of George G. Romain if you feel that your employer has illegally prevented you from participating in lawful labor union activities on their property, and/or retaliated or terminated you for doing so.

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