Illinois General Assembly passes bill to help Teamsters who picketed funerals

Jacob Huebert

Senior Attorney at Liberty Justice Center, author of Libertarianism Today.

Jacob Huebert
/ Labor
November 12, 2013

Illinois General Assembly passes bill to help Teamsters who picketed funerals

Since July, Illinois Teamsters have been on strike against funeral home operator Service Corporation International, or SCI, because SCI didn’t offer a contract that the union found satisfactory. At first, the Teamsters fought their battle by aggressively picketing funeral homes SCI owns in Illinois. Among other things, strikers at Illinois funeral homes reportedly blocked mourners...

Since July, Illinois Teamsters have been on strike against funeral home operator Service Corporation International, or SCI, because SCI didn’t offer a contract that the union found satisfactory. At first, the Teamsters fought their battle by aggressively picketing funeral homes SCI owns in Illinois. Among other things, strikers at Illinois funeral homes reportedly blocked mourners from leaving a funeral home parking lot, used bullhorns to shout obscenities at mourners and workers, and disrupted a child’s funeral with laughter.

Fortunately for the bereaved, a Cook County Circuit Court judge put an end to that with a preliminary injunction against the Teamsters on Sept. 19.

Deprived of that tactic, the Teamsters turned to the Illinois General Assembly, which this week passed Senate Bill 1787, a bill that’s sole purpose is to force SCI to give in to the union’s demands and end a lockout that started in August.

The bill, which now awaits Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature, would allow the state comptroller to suspend or revoke any funeral home’s license to sell pre-need funeral contracts – agreements under which a person pays for funeral expenses long in advance of needing them – if the funeral home “engages in a lockout . . . and the Comptroller has reason to believe the lockout is negatively impacting the consumer.”

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Tony Munoz, D-Chicago, insists that the law is really just about “consumer protection” and not about doing a favor for a politically powerful union that just happens to be facing a lockout by a funeral home operator.

But of course it’s all about helping the Teamsters.

Just ask the Teamsters. On their strike blog, the union threatened to push for passage of SB 1787 if SCI didn’t end the lockout. “The point of this bill is to end the lock out (sic) and bring SCI/Dignity Memorial and the Teamsters Local 727 back to the table in order to negotiate fairly on the next contract,” the union said. And now they’re celebrating.

SCI, for its part, has called SB 1787 unconstitutional — and that’s right.

One constitutional problem is that the bill attempts to intervene on behalf of one side in a private labor dispute, which is governed by federal law, not state law.

Another constitutional – and moral – problem is that this bill’s only purpose is private gain, not the public good. A statute that gives special privileges to favored people or groups with no corresponding benefit to the public violates the rule of law and is not a legitimate exercise of government power.

The bill’s authors have tried to give it an appearance of legitimacy by authorizing the comptroller to revoke a license only when a lockout “negatively impact[s] the consumer.” But this obviously is a pretext and shouldn’t stop a court from striking the provision down. The union presumably would argue that the bill addresses a genuine problem because, in their view, a lockout of union funeral directors and drivers results in inferior funeral services, which harms consumers. But even if you assume that’s true, this bill doesn’t address that problem: it doesn’t revoke a funeral home’s license to conduct funerals with non-union workers, but only revokes its license to sell pre-need packages for funerals that will almost certainly occur long after the lockout is over. So even if you accept the union’s premises, revoking a funeral home’s license to sell pre-need packages doesn’t help consumers; it just punishes one side in a private labor dispute.

The courts should also disapprove of the practically unlimited discretion the bill gives the comptroller to suspend a license based on nothing more than a “reason to believe.”

Although Quinn is supportive of union interests and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the Teamsters, let’s hope he understands that this bill goes too far – and that he can show enough independence and respect for the rule of law to veto it and spare taxpayers another costly lawsuit the state can’t afford.

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