New Jersey gives unions green light to file lawsuits against employers

(The Center Square) — New Jersey has given labor unions the legal authority to file litigation against companies over alleged labor violations despite claims from business groups that it will result in a slew of lawsuits.

The legislation, recently signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, will allow unions to represent workers or a third party in wage claim lawsuits against contractors and subcontractors for any debt owed for construction, reconstruction, demolition, alteration and maintenance projects.

“Every worker should be properly compensated for the work they undertake – no exceptions,” Murphy said in a statement. “This bill allows unions to take up for those workers without representation seeking wage claims.”

In a letter to lawmakers, Murphy said enforcing wage and hour laws is a “top priority” for his administration. He argued that allowing unions to sue on behalf of workers will improve labor conditions.

“It is our expectation that empowering labor unions to pursue actions in court on behalf of construction workers, whether they belong to the union or no union at all, will inure to the benefit of all workers in this industry and their families,” the Democrat wrote.

Under current state law, the State Commission of Labor and Workforce Development and a joint labor-management committee can file lawsuits against companies seeking unpaid wages.

The move was strongly opposed by business groups who argued it would supplant the state’s role in addressing wage and hour violations and incentivize labor unions to file frivolous lawsuits against private employers.

During a hearing on the bill, the New Jersey Business and Industry Association argued that the legislation would allow labor unions to act in the place of the state government by filing lawsuits on behalf of workers they don’t represent.

“It does not make sense for entities to weigh in on behalf of workers that have not chosen to be part of the union and may actually object to the union’s intervention on their behalf,” Alexis Bailey, the association’s then-vice president of government affairs, told the Senate Labor Committee in February.

The bill also allows plaintiffs to recover attorney fees and costs, which she told the panel will “incentivize attorneys to seek out union clients that can bring forth wage claim suits against a vast number of contractors and subcontractors.”

Bailey said the state Labor Department should strengthen its wage and hour law enforcement instead of giving away its authority to labor unions.

“DOL is uniquely situated to use unbiased discretion to address wage and hour violations,” she said. “That is why it is the role of the department, not private unions, to enforce our state wage and hour laws.”