State Supreme Court limits union rights in Texas

Unionized government workers in Texas — including firefighters, police and teachers — don’t have the right to be accompanied by a union representative while being questioned during internal investigations, a divided Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday. Such representation is a basic right for unionized private sector and federal government employees. But in a case begun by a Round Rock firefighter disciplined in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that state labor law doesn’t specifically confer a similar right to workers employed by state, county, city or local governments in Texas.

“On its face, (Texas law) confers only one explicit right: the right to organize into a trade union or other organization,” Justice Paul Green wrote for the majority. “It says nothing about any rights that may attach once such unions are formed.”

Writing in dissent, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson argued that state law isn’t silent on the issue because it gives employees the right to unionize “to protect themselves … in their respective employment.”

“How can unions protect employees’ jobs if they cannot engage in conduct to protect employees’ jobs?” Jefferson wrote.

“In Texas, after today, state and local government employees must go it alone. The court concedes that the statute permits unionization, but precludes a prime attribute that makes the union worthwhile,” said the dissent, joined by Justices Nathan Hecht and Debra Lehrmann.

In 2008, firefighter Jaime Rodriguez — who is still with the Round Rock Fire Department — was called in to a meeting with then-Fire Chief Larry Hodge to discuss an allegation that Rodriguez had improperly used 2½ hours of sick time to apply for a firefighting job with Austin.

Rodriguez’s request for union representation at the meeting was denied.

Hodge, who retired in 2011, eventually gave Rodriguez the choice of being fired or accepting a five-day suspension. The firefighter chose the suspension, but he followed with a lawsuit — joined by the Round Rock Firefighters Association — arguing that his union rights had been violated.

A district judge and the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin agreed with Rodriguez, relying in part on a 1975 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in NLRB v. Weingarten, which established that private sector employees had a right to union representation during internal investigations. Congress soon followed, extending the right to unionized federal employees.

But the Texas Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, noting that the Legislature didn’t follow Congress’s lead.

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