By Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The validity of an Indiana state law that bars companies from requiring workers to join a union and pay union dues was affirmed on Tuesday by a U.S. appeals court in a win for "right to work" advocates.
The Indiana law does not violate the U.S. Constitution or federal labor statutes, a three-judge appellate panel said, agreeing with a lower court's decision to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the law.
A local division of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents roughly 4,000 workers in northwest Indiana, had sued over the Indiana Right to Work Act.
The law was adopted by Indiana's legislature in February 2012 after a fight that drew hundreds of protesters to the statehouse in Indianapolis.
The law states that workers cannot be required to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.
The lawsuit asked the court to rule that the law conflicted with federal labor law and the right to free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
"The answer is an emphatic no," the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, agreeing that the lawsuit should be dismissed. One judge on the three-judge panel that heard the case dissented, siding with the engineers union.
Attorney Dale Pierson, who argued for the union, said he was disappointed with the majority's decision, but encouraged by the fact that one judge agreed with the union's analysis.
"We're going to make a decision on where we go from here based on the analysis in the decision," Pierson said in an interview. Next steps could include asking the full 7th Circuit to hear the case again, or an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 7th Circuit's decision came as the Indiana Supreme Court was poised to hear two cases on Thursday challenging the same law, but under the Indiana Constitution.
One of the cases was also brought by the engineers union; the other by a local unit of the United Steelworkers union. State trial courts have sided with the unions in both cases.
The lawsuits before the Indiana Supreme Court argue that state law conflicts with a state constitutional provision that says "no person's particular services shall be demanded without just compensation," according to Pierson.
Under federal labor law, unions have a duty to represent all workers in any given bargaining unit. Indiana's right-to-work law states that workers cannot be compelled to pay union dues.
"So, in effect, the members have to subsidize the people who choose not to pay - and we say because of this unique provision in the Indiana Constitution, Indiana's right-to-work law violates the state constitution," Pierson said.
Pierson said, to his knowledge, only two other states, Oregon and Tennessee, have state constitutional provisions similar to Indiana's. Oregon is not a right-to-work state. Tennessee's law has not been challenged in the same way, Pierson said.
The case is James M. Sweeney, et al v. Michael Pence, Governor of the State of Indiana, et al, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-1264.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jeffrey Benkoe)