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Governor of Connecticut Violates First Amendment by Targeting State Employees for Firing Based on Union Membership

June 11, 2013

In State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition v. Rowland I/O as Governor of the State of Connecticut, Connecticut Governor Dannell Molloy attempted to extract $450 million in long-term concessions from the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) and 13 other public employee unions during the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement. Notably, these unions represented 40,000 Connecticut state employees. The Governor advised the plaintiffs that unless they agreed to the concessions, he would fire approximately 3,000 unionized state employees. When the plaintiffs not only failed to agree to the Governor’s proposed concessions but also offered alternative concessions, the Governor ordered the firing of approximately 2,800 union employees.

SEBAC and the other unions brought suit against the Governor and the Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management alleging, inter alia, that the defendants violated their First Amendment right to freedom of association by targeting union employees for termination based on their union membership. Each party moved for summary judgment on their claims with defendants initially winning at the district court level. On appeal, the United State Court of Appeals recognized that it had never articulated a standard for determining whether, and under what circumstances, a public entity’s employment decisions violate the right to associate in unions. To begin its analysis, the court likened the right to associate with unions to the right to associate with political parties and found that conditioning employment on union membership should be subject to “strict scrutiny, and may be done only in the most compelling circumstances.”

The defendants argued that the state needed to reduce the cost of its work force, and that since the plaintiffs refused the proposed CBA concessions, the defendants were forced to lay off union workers to do so. Unfortunately for the defendants, they had stipulated to certain facts earlier in the case; among their stipulations were the following: the firings “had minimal effect on the [s]tate’s [fiscal year 2003] expenses,” and the savings realized from the firings did not correlate to the concessions requested from the unions. The court observed that the defendants did not demonstrate why the state’s fiscal health required firing only union members as they had previously stipulated that all state employees, whether or not they belong to unions, receive the same health care and pension benefits.

The court found that the state did not narrowly tailor the terminations to further vital government interests and held that the defendants violated the plaintiff’s First Amendment right to freedom of association by targeting union employees for firing based on their union membership. The court of appeals thus reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to defendants.

Impact: This case is significant because the courts have now extended First Amendment protection to situations where employment decisions by public entities are being made based upon employees associating with unions. The courts will apply strict scrutiny to any such decisions and and we strongly recommend that in the future municipalities evaluate the grounds for and impact of layoffs on their employee unions in a manner consistent with both constitutional and state statutory requirements.

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