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by Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. | March 01, 2012
Legal Basics

Regardless of the free-speech argument, unions cannot violate existing ordinances and requirements.  

It is unlawful for Unite Here to apply secondary pressure on organizations that are indirectly involved or to boycott against a neutral or secondary employer.

Both Unite Here and your organization have the right to gather under peaceful circumstances.

Demonstrators cannot impede access to a venue.

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Unite Here, the union that represents some of the hospitality industry's hourly employees, continues to be aggressive in taking its grievances beyond the picket line. These activities include picketing organizations before they meet at hotels targeted by Unite Here; passing out pamphlets; sending letters and e-mails to corporate employees, association members, exhibitors and other potential attendees; calling out host organizations on the Internet, and going to the host organizations' offices.

To some, these actions are seen to range from harassment to potential criminal activity.

What's OK? Unite Here claims it is exercising its First Amendment right of free speech and that its conduct is allowed under the National Labor Relations Act. But does the free speech requirement apply only to what government can do to limit it, and not to what individuals can do to protect themselves from such behavior?

Let's look at what's legal.

• Private property is private property. Host organizations are not required nor should they feel intimidated into allowing demonstrators/picketers to be at their physical location. Union representatives can come to the office and demand to see the higher-ups. No law says they have to be let in.

• Public space is public. Unite Here is free to gather in public areas as long as they assemble peacefully. In some situations, permits might be required to picket, demonstrate or distribute literature.

• Noise level might be regulated. Some picketing groups use noise -- such as beating on plastic pails and shouting into megaphones -- to disturb the integrity of an event. Noise ordinances might regulate this action, allowing your group also to gather peacefully. Here, too, permits might be required.

The Planner's Role What are the real issues and positions? In many situations, the parties are in agreement on economic terms, but disagree on details concerning how union representation is determined. No matter the particulars, planners need to be proactive.

• Let attendees and others know what's happening. While there might be an attempt to disrupt your program, demonstrators cannot impede your attendees' access to your venue. Still, your attendees will want to know what they might encounter. If there might be trouble, local law enforcement should be notified. In some areas, special task forces exist to handle labor activities.

• Find out how the venue is handling the problem. Officials at the property should be doing the heavy lifting to prevent the interruption of your program and provide for the safety of all concerned.

• Update the contract. Consider clauses that give you discretion in what you can do in such situations, taking into consideration the concerns and views of your attendees. For instance, if you anticipate a drop in attendance due to the union action, what will the property do to reduce blocks, F&B, etc.?

Bottom line: The safety and security of all concerned is paramount. As soon as you realize your group might be targeted, get legal advice to deal with the specifics of your situation.