Union Political Speech After Citizens United: The United Electrical Workers’ Endorsement of the BDS Movement

Course Description

Approved for 1.25 Ohio & 1.5 Pennsylvania Continuing Legal Education (CLE) hours.

At its national convention in August 2015, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) adopted a resolution endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) to pressure Israel to end the occupation and grant Palestinians their freedom. UE is now the first national U.S. union to endorse BDS.

In October 2015, David Abrams, a New York City-based attorney, and Shurat HaDin, an Israel-based organization that “fight[s] academic and economic boycotts and challeng[es] those who seek to delegitimize the Jewish State” filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging that the UE had violated Section 8(b)(4)(i) of the National Labor Relations Act. Section 8(b)(4) prohibits unions from engaging in secondary boycotts, including by merely encouraging workers to withhold their labor. In the 1982 case ILA v. Allied, the Supreme Court applied Section 8(b)(4)’s restrictions to purely political protest.

Although the UE’s resolution does not encourage anyone to withhold their labor, the National Labor Relations Board is taking Shurat HaDin’s allegations seriously. The case is currently being reviewed by the NLRB General Counsel’s Division of Advice; the UE would expect an Advice Decision prior to the NLG Mideast Regional Conference.

The panelists will discuss the UE’s endorsement of the BDS movement and the legal defense of the unfair labor practice charge, which not only seeks to have the charge dismissed on factual grounds, but more significantly alleges that under Citizens United Section 8(b)(4)’s restrictions on only the political speech of unions clearly violates the First Amendment.


Speaker Bios

Alan Hart, managing editor of the UE News, has been a member of UE for 42 years, starting when he was hired by General Electric at its plant in Erie, PA in October 1973 and immediately joined the union, UE Local 506, which is UE’s largest local and one of its oldest. As a member of Local 506 he was elected to serve as shop steward and as a member of the local union executive board, and he also served as managing editor of the local’s newsletter.

From 1986 to 2006 Hart served in UE’s field staff and was involved in organizing, bargaining contracts, representing workers in grievance meetings and arbitrations, training local union officers and stewards, and other union work. Since 2006 he’s been managing editor of the UE News, the union’s official organ. In addition to editing the newspaper, Hart’s duties include other union communications, and he writes, co-writes, and edits many of the union’s public statements.

Joseph Cohen is the General Counsel of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).  He coordinates the Union’s legal activities nationwide and advises the Union’s leadership and staff on organizing, negotiation and representation strategy.  Joseph has been with the Union for over eleven years.  Prior to working for UE, Joseph was an Equal Justice Works Fellow and Staff Attorney at Florida Rural Legal Services.

Peter Knowlton has been a UE member for over 30 years. A life-long activist and organizer for economic and social change and justice, like many of his generation, he grew up inspired by and a part of the democratic tradition of the “new left” militancy of the anti-racist civil and indigenous rights, feminist, anti-war and anti-imperialist, environmental, LGBT, and the rank and file labor and socialist movements in the 60’s and 70’s. He considers himself, first and foremost, a UE organizer and member of a rank and file union that has always embraced these ideals. Over the last two decades he served in that capacity as President of the UE’s Northeast Region and was recently elected General President of the national union.

Margot Nikitas (moderator) is Associate General Counsel of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). A 2012 graduate of the labor and employment law program at Chicago-Kent College of Law, Margot was active in labor and immigrant rights activism in Chicago prior to joining the UE legal department at the union’s national office in Pittsburgh. She recently served as the first organizing chair of Fight Back Pittsburgh, a United Steelworkers associate membership program founded in 2013 that aims to make the labor movement relevant to workers who are not in unions.

About UE: The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), is a democratic national union based in Pittsburgh, PA representing some 35,000 workers in a wide variety of manufacturing, public sector and private non-profit sector jobs. UE is an independent union (not affiliated with the AFL-CIO) proud of its democratic structure and progressive policies. Read more at www.ueunion.org.