The Supreme Court in Smith v. Arkansas State Highway Employees, 441 U.S. 463 (1979), reversed two lower courts in declaring that the Arkansas State Highway Commission had the right to require employees to submit grievances directly to it rather than through a union representative.
Requiring employees to submit complaints directly to government did not violate First Amendment rights
The Court held that this did not violate the workers’ First Amendment rights of speech, petition, and association.
The Court’s per curiam opinion affirmed that the First Amendment protected the right to speak freely, the right to petition the government, and the right of associations to take positions on behalf of their members.
First Amendment does not require government to recognize unions
It also said that “the First Amendment is not a substitute for the national labor relations law.” Accordingly, it “does not impose any affirmative obligation on the government to listen, to respond or, in this context, to recognize the association and bargain with it.”
The commission had not prohibited its employees from associating; it had simply refused to consider grievances filed by the union as opposed to individuals.
Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented, objecting to the Court’s summary reversal. He thought its decision interfered with the right of unions to protect their members. In Minnesota Board for Community Colleges v. Knight (1984), the Court used this precedent to argue that a state could also decide to hear grievances only through union representatives if it so chose.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.