Case law placed an onus upon labor unions that is known as the Duty of Fair Representation. The Duty of Fair Representation originated in the 1944 United States Supreme Court case of Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad, wherein a black employee sought to set aside a bargain-for-seniority system that discriminated based on race. The Supreme Court ruled that the Railway Labor Act implicity imposed a duty upon the union to bargain for all members of the bargaining unit.
The Duty of Fair Representation continued to develop when it was extended to the National Labor Relations Act. In the 1952 Supreme Court case of Ford Motor co. v. Huffman, Huffman was an employee of Ford Motor Corporation in 1944 and then went on leave to serve in the United States military for a year and a half during World War II. In 1946, Huffman returned to the United States and rejoined Ford. Huffman, along with 275 other Ford employees in similar positions, were not granted promotion rights because they were considered too “new” at Ford. The Supreme Court nullified the Union’s bargaining agreement with respect to the employee joining dates because it was unfair not to give these employees due seniority in the company.
The 1957 Supreme Court case of Conley v. Gibson further developed Fair Representation. In that case, black union workers were fired and replaced by white union workers. The minority union workers sued the union, claiming that the union did not properly represent them by failing to protect them against racism. The Supreme Court ruled that the union did not fairly represent minority members of its union.
The 1967 Supreme Court case of Vaca v. Sipes explained the Fair Representation requirement with more clarity. In that case, an employee sued his union for damages. The employee had been discharged for health reasons. The union initially processed his grievance but declined to take the case to arbitration. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the jury could properly have found the union had arbitrarily failed to represent the plaintiff in the handling of his grievance by refusing to take his case to arbitration.
The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court noted: “[T]he exclusive agent’s statutory authority to represent all members of a designated unit includes a statutory obligation to serve the interests of all members without hostility or discrimination toward any, to exercise its discretion with complete good faith and honesty, and to avoid arbitrary conduct. … It is obvious that [plaintiff’s] … complaint alleged a breach by the Union of a duty grounded in federal statutes.” That is to say, it is the union’s duty to fairly represent anyone in the bargaining unit without arbitrarily denying some members representation.
Are you a union member? Have you been treated unfairly by your union? By your employer? As an employee, you have rights. Contact HKM, a Seattle law firm that specializes in labor and employment law.