Opinion: Elected officials can stand with striking workers

Elected officials in Los Angeles—and everywhere—have a First Amendment right to express their views on labor disputes, including showing solidarity with the unions and joining their picket lines. Contrary to the advice given by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, there is nothing in federal law that prevents city officials from publishing their opinions.

After the city came. Hydee Feldstein Soto’s office warned elected officials that expressing support for striking workers in major labor disputes in Los Angeles could raise concerns about “the bias and integrity of officials who participate in the city’s decision-making processes” and potentially hold the city to account, according to a memo reviewed by Times reporters. This position, however, has no basis in law.

The Attorney General’s office misinterprets a 1986 US Supreme Court decision, regarding Golden State Transit versus the city of Los Angeles. In this case, the city council refused to renew the city’s concession agreement with the taxi company because the company was involved in a labor dispute with its drivers. The court ruled that the National Labor Relations Act prohibited the city from exerting coercive pressure on parties to settle the strike. In a later decision, the court found the city liable for the damages claimed by the taxi company.

But the Golden State Transit cases do not support the city attorney’s conclusion remotely. Those cases involved the city as an entity pressuring a private company to settle a strike or lose its contract with the city. It has nothing to do with individual elected officials expressing their opinions, including their support for the workers’ sit-down. The rhetoric of individual councilors differs from threatening the city to terminate a contract and trying to force an end to the strike. Those issues involved actions by the city, not the expression of a viewpoint by an elected official.

In its memo, the city’s attorney general’s office also expressed concern that if council members showed up at picket lines or rallied with protesters, they might have to recuse themselves from voting on a related issue in the future. “The participation of multiple members in such activities may affect the council’s ability to meet a quorum in matters relating to the union or employers and could expose the city to liability,” the memo said.

This is just wrong. Elected city officials are allowed to express their opinions, including on matters that will ultimately be brought to them for a vote. They are not like judges who are expected to refrain from expressing public positions on cases.

There are rules for conflict of interest for city council members, but none of them indicate that there is any problem with elected officials who hold office. It cannot be unacceptable. Elected officials are expected to express their positions—both in running for office and while serving—on matters that will be brought before them.

The city attorney general’s office memorandum appears to support the startling change in the behavior of elected officials, many of whom have long supported striking workers. No one ever suggested that such behavior violated federal law or was inappropriate. In fact, it is at the heart of First Amendment freedoms.

Of course, the city attorney general’s office has an important duty to protect the city from legal risks and behavior that could lead to liability. But in this case, she misread the law and overreacted. If city councilors want to express their views – whether in support of striking workers or in opposition – it is their constitutional right and part of the normal political process.

Erwin Kemerinsky is a contributing writer for Opinion and dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. His most recent book isWorse than nothing: the dangerous fallacy of origin”.

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