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Workers and employers face off at U.S. Supreme Court

The sun shines through cloud cover above the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The sun shines through cloud cover above the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Lawrence Hurley and Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Workplace disputes pepper the docket of cases the U.S. Supreme Court will take up during a nine-month term starting on Monday, with the justices having delivered a string of victories to businesses and employers in their last term.

Organized labor will feature in two of the cases. In one, an employee seeks to limit the power of public-sector unions to collect dues. In the other, an employee aims to limit the ability of private-sector unions to sign up members.

It would constitute a significant blow to the labor movement were the court, split 5-4 between Republican and Democratic presidential appointees, to rule against the unions in both cases, legal experts say.

During the term that begins October 7 and ends in June, the nine-member court, led by Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, also will consider President Barack Obama's "recess appointments" to the National Labor Relations Board and take up the issue of whether workers at a steel plant should get paid for the time it takes to change into safety gear.

Despite the current federal government shutdown, the court is scheduled to function normally until at least October 11, the court said on Thursday.

Among the 47 cases the court has already agreed to hear, 28 involve or affect business interests, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the main group representing corporate America before the court.

The court can be expected to accept about 70 cases per term.

In the last term, which ended in June, the Chamber received a favorable outcome in 14 of the 18 cases in which it filed friend-of-the-court briefs, prompting progressive legal groups to renew complaints that the court has become too pro-business.

It's a statistic that concerns Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the country.

"The Supreme Court we have is the best friend that corporate America has ever had," he told Reuters in an August interview.

It's a categorization that both the Chamber and lawyers who represent businesses dispute.

"There are areas of the law in which business interests prevail, but it isn't because of any systematic pro-business bias," said Kannon Shanmugam, a lawyer with the Williams & Connolly law firm.

Shanmugam warned against concluding the court has a growing interest in labor issues because, he noted, they all deal with quite separate legal questions.

"It would be hard to say these cases reflect a renewed focus on employee-employer relations," he said.

UNION CASES

Taken together, the two organized labor cases raise significant questions about union power, Harvard University Law School Professor Benjamin Sachs said.

"These are not cases about arcane rules of organizing, rules like where on an employer's property can a union talk to employees," he said. "These are cases that go to the heart of the legal regimes that are necessary to enable unionization."

In one of the union cases, Harris v. Quinn, Pamela Harris, a home-based healthcare worker, sued Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn over a state statute that requires public-sector employees to pay the portion of union dues that do not go to political activities.

Illinois, like many states, considers such workers state employees because their payments are administered by the state and covered by Medicaid, the federal health program for lower-income people that is administered by the states.

Attorneys say the questions presented in the case are nearly identical to those in the 1977 Supreme Court case that set that standard, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The justices hinted in 2012 in the last union case the court heard, Knox v. SEIU, that they may be willing to reconsider whether the compelled payment of union dues infringes on free speech.

"Knox put into serious question whether Abood is still good law," said Marquette University law professor Paul Secunda. "Harris might be the vehicle for overruling Abood, making it more difficult for public unions to raise dues."

The second union case, Unite Here Local 355 v. Mulhall, questions whether agreements between unions and private-sector employers that set conditions for unionizing a workplace violate the anti-corruption provisions in federal labor laws.

It is illegal for an employer to provide "things of value" to a union. The case contends that some of the terms in these now ubiquitous agreements are essentially bribes.

If the court agrees, employers and unions that enter into agreements with such terms would be committing felonies, legal experts say.

The two union cases have reached the court in large part due to the efforts of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which represents workers that don't want to be unionized in both cases.

One of its lawyers, William Messenger, said victory in both cases would be "very significant" for his organization's mission. "Everyone should be able to decide individually who they associate with," he added.

RENEWED FOCUS?

The National Labor Relations Board case hinges on a broad issue concerning the president's power to make so-called "recess appointments" when the U.S. Senate, which would normally have to approve them, is not in session. The case will have a direct impact on companies involved in disputes with employees because if the court rules for the challenger, Noel Canning Corp, it would knock out hundreds of labor relations board decisions dating back to January 2012 and require them to be reconsidered.

The steel plant case has much smaller ramifications, focusing as it does on the meaning of the phrase "changing clothes" under the Fair Labor Standards Act. A group of 800 current and former hourly workers at the U.S. Steel Corp plant in Gary, Indiana, say they should be compensated for changing clothes because it is a key part of their job.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Amanda Becker; Editing by Howard Goller and Ken Wills)

(This story was refiled to delete repeated sentence)

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