SAN FRANCISCO
12/28/2012 10:08 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

California Labor Unions Allowed More Freedom By State Supreme Court

In a hands-down win for organized labor, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state's labor laws assuring union members the right to picket on privately owned walkways fronting store entrances are not unconstitutional.

The long-awaited and much-watched ruling reverses a 2010 decision by Sacramento's 3rd District Court of Appeal striking down two parts of the state's labor laws as unconstitutional and declaring retail owners can't be forced to allow picketing on their property just because it relates to a labor dispute.

The high court sent the case back to the 3rd District for further proceedings in accord with Thursday's ruling.

The appeal court will have to withdraw its order to Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren E. McMaster to issue an injunction prohibiting United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 8 from picketing at the entrance and on sidewalks adjacent to a Foods Co. store in the College Square development on West Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento. McMaster had refused to issue an injunction.

Requests for comment on the Supreme Court's ruling from Local 8 and Ralphs Grocery Co. of Compton, owner of the Foods Co. store, went unanswered Thursday.

The union members began picketing the establishment, a warehouse-type grocery store operated by Ralphs, when it opened in 2007.

The pickets encouraged people not to shop there because the employees were not represented by a union and did not have a collective bargaining agreement.

In its ruling 2 1/2 years ago, a three-justice panel of the appellate court had found that "the entrance area and apron" of the Foods Co. store "were not designed and presented to the public as public meeting places," and therefore did not constitute a public forum under the state constitution's liberty-of-speech provision.

Thus, the panel concluded, Ralphs "could limit the speech allowed and could exclude anyone desiring to engage in prohibited speech."

The panel struck down the so-called Moscone Act and a section of the state's Labor Code as violations of the U.S. Constitution's free speech and equal protection guarantees, saying they gave speech about labor disputes greater protection than speech on other issues.

The Supreme Court agreed that the market's privately owned entrance area is not a public forum and union picketing there does not have protection under the California Constitution.

But, the high court declared, the two statutes struck down by the appeal court do protect such picketing.

The statutes are actually modeled on federal law and do not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution's ban on content-based speech discrimination, the court said.

Since a ruling it issued in 1964, the Supreme Court said, "California law has protected the right to engage in labor speech -- including picketing, distributing handbills, and other speech activities -- on private land in front of a business that is the subject of a labor dispute."

The Supreme Court noted that content-based speech regulation is sometimes permissible if there are legitimate concerns unrelated to disagreement with the message. In this case, it stated, the state law allowing union picketing on a privately owned entrance to a retail business "is justified by the state's interest in promoting collective bargaining to resolve labor disputes, the recognition that union picketing is a component of the collective bargaining process, and the understanding that the area outside the entrance of the targeted business is 'the most effective point of persuasion.' "

Finally, the court pointed out that decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court "support the proposition that labor-related speech may be treated differently than speech on other topics."

Thursday's opinion was written by Associate Justice Joyce L. Kennard. Concurring were Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Associate Justices Marvin R. Baxter, Kathryn M. Werdegar, Carol A. Corrigan and Goodwin Liu.

Associate Justice Ming W. Chin wrote a separate opinion agreeing with parts of the majority's opinion but disagreeing with the conclusion that those state statutes at issue are constitutional.

They "are probably constitutional on their face," he wrote. "But the difficult questions are how they should be applied and whether they are valid as applied."

He noted he and his colleagues agree that McMaster erred when he denied an injunction to halt the picketing based on the belief that the market's entrance is a public forum.

Rather than decide the constitutionality of the statutes, Chin said, the case should be remanded to the Sacramento Superior Court so it can "reconsider the matter with a correct understanding of California's forum law. Only on a concrete record following a trial court decision free of legal error should we attempt to decide the remaining questions."

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189. ___

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