Local 150 General Counsel Dale Pierson was the subject of a national profile by Bloomberg Law, which focused on Local 150’s tireless efforts to fight in the courts to defend and advance the rights of our members and workers at large. Read the article from Bloomberg Law below:
Chicago Union’s Lawyer Willing to Lose on the Way to Victory
May 29, 2019
When Chicago-area municipalities moved to endorse a broad set of reforms promoted by Illinois’ then-Republican governor in 2015, a local affiliate of the International Union of Operating Engineers fought back in characteristic style.
Under the stewardship of General Counsel Dale Pierson, Local 150 sued several area councils for violating state open meeting law when they met to publicly back Governor Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda.” That agenda included calls to dial back collective bargaining rights and redesign pensions in the public sector. The lawsuits forced some of the municipalities to back off showing their support for the plan.
Local 150 also tipped off the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund about members of those area councils not working enough hours to stay eligible for state pensions. After an IMRF investigation, some of the local councils voted to end officials’ participation in pension funds, according to the union.
“There were people who said we shouldn’t take that approach, that it was revenge,” Pierson said. “But it’s important to make clear that we’re not here to take punches. We’re here for a fight.”
Pierson, a 65-year-old native of Chicago’s South Side, has been executing Local 150’s pugnacious legal strategy for the better part of two decades, even prior to giving up a law firm partnership and becoming the union’s first general counsel in in 2002.
The Chicago-based union represents 23,000 public and private sector workers, mostly in the construction industry in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. Most unions the size of Local 150 don’t have the legal firepower that comes with having an eight-attorney legal department, labor lawyers said.
In recent years, Local 150’s legal division has challenged stateand local “right-to-work” laws and sued pharmaceutical companies over the opioid crisis’ impact on union members. Pierson has also developed legal theories that try to repurpose the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME—which shut down a key revenue stream for public sector unions—as a tool that can benefit organized labor.
Colleagues and friends describe Pierson as a lawyer with the knowledge and curiosity of an intellectual, the savvy and communication skills of a politician, and the passion and grit of an activist. One courtroom opponent told Bloomberg Law that Pierson has the “highest ethical standards.”
“Dale will communicate with you honestly and openly,” said Richard Samson, an attorney with the management-side law firm Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart. “With Dale, I know I’m in for a tough-but-fair fight.”
Change in Administrations Hasn’t Changed Approach
Pierson hasn’t moderated Local 150’s aggressive approach as the federal courts and the National Labor Relations Board have grown more conservative with the influx of Trump administration appointees.
Many unions have stayed away from courts and the labor board, instead focusing resources on elections and internal organizing, according to labor law observers.
Some observers disagree with Local 150’s continued assertiveness in the current environment.
“I think it’s not only quixotic, it’s dangerous to fight in the courts right now,” said Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University. “I don’t think the ground is ripe. The chance of setting up bad precedent is what I’d most be concerned about.”
Pierson’s belief in the virtues of staying on the offensive stems in part from his study of American history. The most successful generals in the Civil War, Pierson said, weren’t the ones who favored holding back and regrouping, but rather those who kept marching and attacking.
The history of the U.S. labor movement provides similar lessons, Pierson said. Almost all the early major strikes, like the Pullman strike in 1894 and the Homestead strikes in 1892, resulted in immediate losses for the unions. But they produced long-term gains because many times corporations weren’t willing to wage those battles with organized labor later on, he said.
Local 150 embodies that spirit with its strikes, which it launches despite the union being a frequent target for company lawsuits seeking damages for the work stoppages, Pierson said.
“We’re not afraid to get our noses a little bloody,” he said. “More often than not, we prevail. Even when we take it on the chin and lose damage suits, contractors make a deal later because they don’t want to go through that again.”
Labor Roots, Political Races
Despite his willingness to fight, Pierson said he’s “not the most aggressive guy here.” He said his job is to give union officials options and keep them out of trouble. But his boss doesn’t quite agree with that last point.
“I’ve always told our attorneys that your job is to get us out of trouble, not keep us out of trouble,” Local 150 President James Sweeney said.
Pierson has bought into Local 150’s philosophy and gels with the union’s forceful approach to organizing and labor-management relations “because in his heart of hearts, Dale believes in the labor movement,” Sweeney said.
Pierson’s experience with organized labor started with his father, a union worker in the carpentry and general contracting trades. That put a young Pierson on construction sites in the Chicago suburbs, working summer jobs as a helper.
At Northern Illinois University, Pierson majored in history and political science. After serving as student body president, he ran for mayor of DeKalb, Ill., as a 23-year-old college student. He said he campaigned on changing the town’s restrictive liquor laws so residents would be able to get a beer and a slice of pizza in the same restaurant. When the ballots were tallied, he came in third out of four candidates with 1,300 votes.
“In hindsight, what I should have done is run on straight-up decriminalization of marijuana” using the town’s home rule powers under the Illinois Constitution, Pierson said. “That would have been more fun.”
Knowing the Law And Union Politics
Pierson chose law school over pursuing a doctorate in labor history. He clerked at a union-side law firm in Chicago the summer before his graduation, where he impressed veteran labor lawyer Stanley Eisenstein with his dedication. Pierson’s career arc has come as no surprise, Eisenstein said.
Succeeding as an attorney for unions, Eisenstein said, requires more than just legal acumen. Unlike other practices areas, which involve disputes that can be resolved based on the law and the facts alone, a union-side practice forces lawyers to deal with internal union politics, he said.
“That requires more than just knowing what the NLRB or court cases say,” said Eisenstein. “Dale knows how to factor all that in.”
Pierson eventually worked for a firm that counted Local 150 among its clients. Legal work for the union exploded after Bill Dugan was elected as Local 150’s president in 1986, Pierson said.
Dugan created an organizing department, so instead of just working on contracts and grievances, Pierson also litigated cases at the NLRB related to organizing drives. In addition, Dugan instituted a new dues structure that generated the financial resources to sustain the union’s growth over the years, Pierson said.
One topic that kept busy Pierson through the 1990s was defending Local 150 against about a dozen different strike-related damage lawsuits. He also fought off challenges to the use of inflatable Scabby the Rat during worker protests, with one case producing a landmark ruling from a federal judge saying the use of the cartoon rat balloon at protests was symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.
Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same: Local 150 is currently litigating a challenge to Scabby at the NLRB.
The next big change for Pierson and Local 150 was sparked by Dugan’s bid to simultaneously remain aggressive and lower the union’s legal bills. Dugan asked Pierson to come in-house as its general counsel, while also making it clear that he’d find somebody else if Pierson didn’t take the job.
Pierson agreed, as long as Dugan would pay to staff a full legal department. He came aboard in 2002 and brought five lawyers with him, including Melinda Hensel.
Over the years, Pierson has proven adept at translating proposals—including the occasional “wackadoodle idea”—into actionable plans, Hensel said.
In one notable set of cases, Pierson has attempted to use the Supreme Court’s Janus decision as a weapon for unions. That ruling said requiring government workers who aren’t union members to pay fees nonpolitical expenses violates the First Amendment.
Local 150 cited Janus to make free speech arguments in lawsuits challenging how a public pension fund makes investment decisions, an Illinois town’s funding of a municipal lobbying organization, and its own duty to represent nonmembers in the public sector who don’t pay fees. The union lost the public pension lawsuit, but continues to litigate the other two.
Regarding the duty of representation lawsuit, winning the right to deny services to nonmembers would give Local 150 the stick that compliments the carrot of better wages and benefits, Pierson said.
“We’re pretty good at persuading,” he said. “We have to have the other option. We need that stick.”