Today, the United States Supreme Court provided employers with a big win over labor unions. In Janus v. AFSCME, the Court ruled that the First Amendment rights of non-union members were violated when they were forced to pay “agency fees” to support union activities. Here’s a link to a Chicago Sun-Times article discussing the decision: Government Workers No Longer Have to Pay “Fair Share” Fees.
An “agency fee” is also called a “fair share fee” or a “service fee.” Those fees are imposed on employees who refuse to join a union in a workplace that is subject to a collective bargaining agreement. Typically, those fees are imposed where the union is deemed the “exclusive representative” of all employees in a bargaining unit, including employees who decline to join the union. In theory, non-union employees gain the benefit of union-negotiated wages and benefits. Therefore, the “agency fee” is imposed so that non-union employees pay an amount equal to the union’s costs of collective bargaining and contract administration. After the Janus decision, “agency fees” can no longer be imposed on employees in public sector jobs.
The impact of the Janus case for most employers in Alabama is minimal. Alabama is a “right to work” state. As a result, mandatory “agency fees” are generally impermissible in Alabama. See Alabama Code § 25-7-34. Potentially, this ruling might impact workers at “federal enclaves” in Alabama like Fort Rucker or Redstone Arsenal. In many areas of those enclaves, the federal government possesses exclusive jurisdiction, and federal law can trump Alabama’s “right to work” laws. But seeProfessional Helicopter Pilots Assoc. v. Lear Siegler Svcs., Inc., 326 F.Supp.2d 1305 (M.D. Ala. 2004)(find that Alabama’s “right to work” law controlled over Shell Field at Fort Rucker, because Alabama did not cede exclusive jurisdiction over that land).
Employees have only six (6) months to ask a Judge to enforce an arbitration award that is entered under a collective bargaining agreement. SeeHarris v. Oak Grove Resources, LLC, No. 2:16-cv-00015-JEO, 2016 WL 3997254 (N.D. Ala. Jul. 26, 2015). Anthony Harris relied upon a collective bargaining agreement to contest his termination from employment. On June 21, 2013, an arbitrator ordered Mr. Harris reinstated to employment with back pay. The arbitrator ordered the parties to negotiate the amount of back pay owed to Mr. Harris, and agreed to keep his file open until February 15, 2014 to resolve any disputes.
Mr. Harris claimed that Oak Grove refused to negotiate, and instead unilaterally issued him a check on February 28, 2014 in an amount below what Mr. Harris claimed was owed. Mr. Harris then waited until December 3, 2015 to file a claim in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Alabama seeking “enforcement” of the arbitration award.
Oak Grove removed the case to federal court and argued that Mr. Harris’s state law claims should be dismissed because they were preempted by Section 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act. Magistrate Judge John Ott agreed, finding: “an employee’s claim for enforcement of an arbitration award rendered under a collective bargaining agreement [is] preempted by section 301(a) of the LMRA.” After reaching that conclusion, Judge Ott further relied upon other authorities to hold that an employee possesses only six months from the time a section 301 claim accrues to assert a claim.
In this case, Mr. Harris’s claim would have accrued at least by February 28, 2014 — when Oak Grove sent the check. But, Mr. Harris waited a year and ten months from that date to seek enforcement of the award. As a result, Judge Ott found that Mr. Harris’s claim was barred by the six-month statute of limitations.
Harris and the authorities relied upon by Judge Ott provide employers and employees with a definite, fixed timeline to resolve any disputes related to an arbitration. Employees who fail to assert their rights within that six-month timeline do so at their own peril.