June 29, 2000Madison — The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that industry employees barred from work in a defensive lockout are entitled to unemployment compensation.“It’s a significant decision for the construction industry,” union attorney Matthew Robbins said. “It permits labor disputes to remain narrow and prevents them from drawing in uninvolved people.”The case concerned Local 18 of the Sheet Metal Workers Association, which represents workers in collective bargaining negotiations, and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association (SMACCA) of Milwaukee, an organization that negotiates contracts for member contractors.One week after a contract between the two groups expired in 1996, Local 18 workers struck SMACCA-member Construction Supply and Erection Corp. of Germantown. In response to the selective strike, SMACCA instructed its other member contractors to institute a defensive lockout, barring Local 18 workers from all SMACCA job sites.After sitting out one week, 31 Local 18 workers at another SMACCA company sought unemployment benefits for the week they were locked out.SMACCA attorney Jere Wiedenman, of Buchanan & Barry in Milwaukee, contended that SMACCA’s members should be considered a single body. By striking one member, Local 18 was striking the whole association, he said, denying all workers’ claims to compensation.As the case wound its way to the Supreme Court, only one state agency found that the 31 Local 18 workers missed work because of a strike, not a lockout, and were therefore not entitled to unemployment compensation.But in the court’s decision, Justice N. Patrick Crooks wrote that Local 18’s strike of CS&E was not a negotiating tactic aimed at all SMACCA members.“There is no evidentiary support for its finding that the purpose of Local 18’s strike was to pressure all (SMACCA) members into acquiescing to its bargaining position,” he wrote.The SMACCA members’ defensive lockout was therefore standard, Crooks wrote, entitling the workers to unemployment compensation.Union attorney Robbins said unions typically strike one company because they don’t want to shut down an entire arm of the construction industry. To penalize employees who aren’t taking part in a strike would be unfair, he said, and would set a poor precedent for future contract negotiations.“You’d be punishing employees who were not involved in the primary labor dispute,” he said.Jeff Hynes, a labor and employment law attorney with Adelman & Hynes in Milwaukee, said the court’s decision affirms an employee’s right to compensation when he is not responsible for missing work.“The fundamental principle underlying unemployment compensation law is that when people are involuntarily denied employment they are entitled to compensation,” he said. “The court is sending a message that unemployment compensation laws are correct.”But Wiedenman downplayed the decision’s importance, saying it will not alter the basic strategies of contract negotiations. Contractors have known for years they would have to pay compensation in defensive lockout situations, he said, and that knowledge has not prevented them from playing the card.“Most companies’ decisions were made knowing that their labor pool would be depleted and that the decision would force them to pay unemployment compensation,” he said.