By Jordan Cohen
Municipal Judge Thomas Townley has dismissed criminal charges against strikebound Phillips Manufacturing over hiring replacement workers by declaring the city’s strikebreaker law “unenforceable.”
The judge, however, stopped short of declaring the law unconstitutional. Members of United Steelworkers Local 4564 struck the Walnut Street plant Sept. 13 over a contract impasse, and the company began hiring workers from an employment agency to replace the 44 striking employees. That led Atty. Terry Swauger, the city prosecutor, to invoke the law, which prohibits the employment of “strikebreakers” during a legal work stoppage.
The company’s response to the criminal complaint was to challenge the law’s constitutionality.
The Niles strikebreaker law was enacted in 1964. It includes a maximum fine of $500 and a six-month jail sentence for violations. A constitutional challenge filed against it in 1989 was withdrawn when a strike was settled before the case could be litigated.
In his journal entry, Townley cited a 1938 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of companies to hire replacement workers during strikes. “With that clear pronouncement, a prosecution under a local ordinance banning ‘scab’ employment is unenforceable,” Townley ruled.
Townley could not be reached to comment. A court representative said that the judge is away for the rest of this month and has been replaced by an acting judge.
“I think the law is unconstitutional only with regard to this fact matter,” Swauger said Thursday. “In the future, different facts and cases might make it something we can still use [because] you don’t throw the law out based on one decision.” He referred to Townley’s citation of state court decisions that have upheld other laws to protect private property rights or respond to threats of violence during labor disputes.
“The basis of my argument was that [the law] is unconstitutional,” said Patrick Wilson, the Warren attorney who filed the successful challenge against the law on behalf of Phillips. “I don’t know why [Townley] didn’t go any farther, and we’re not going to do any research to find out.”
Attorney Terry Dull, Niles law director, said that at first reading, he believes Townley’s ruling may render the law unconstitutional but wants to review all the briefs that were filed before the judge’s decision. “You get a broader perspective than you do with just the decision,” Dull said.
Dull said that after his review, he would decide about recommending an appeal of the decision.
Union representatives appeared before Niles Council earlier this week to ask for their help in bringing the company back to the bargaining table. “There haven’t been any negotiations for weeks,” said Tony Beltz, local vice president. Brad Garlock, Phillips human resources director, confirmed Thursday that the last face-to-face bargaining occurred in late January but said that the two sides have exchanged proposals through emails.
Phillips Manufacturing produces metal products for the commercial and residential construction industries.