Category Archives: labor

United States v. Kozminski

487 U. S. 931

June 29, 1988

The Kozminski family ran a dairy farm, and they brought two mentally retarded people to work on it. The family made these two work extremely long hours seven days a week without pay, and used a variety of psychological manipulation techniques to keep them from leaving. The family was ultimately charged under two federal laws, which banned involuntary servitude, and conspiracy to practice involuntary servitude – obviously in reference to the Thirteenth Amendment. Jury instructions stated that involuntary servitude could be created exclusively through psychological coercion, as opposed to physical or legal coercion. The Kozminski family contended that this definition of involuntary servitude was far too broad.

The Court agreed in a 7-2 vote, but split 5-4 about the correct definition of involuntary servitude. O’Connor, writing for the majority, looked at various Thirteenth Amendment precedents, and concluded that only threats of legal or physical coercion could create the practice of involuntary servitude. The legislative history of various acts enacted on the basis of the Amendment also confirmed this more restrictive definition. O’Connor stressed that expanding the definition to include psychological manipulation would sweep too broadly, possibly making someone like a charismatic religious leader guilty under the statutes. She left it to the lower court to determine whether there was enough evidence in the record to convict the Kozminskis even under the narrower definition.

Brennan, joined by Marshall, agreed that the jury instructions swept too broadly, but felt O’Connor’s test was too narrow. His test was whether the means of coercion actually reduced someone to a slavelike state. Long hours, no pay, no days off, and squalid conditions added up to a slavelike condition, and that was what the Amendment and the enforcing statutes were meant to ban. Brennan noted that psychological coercion was very often far more effective than legal or physical coercion – the threat of having your house burned down is no less convincing than the threat of being beaten.

Stevens, joined by Blackmun, thought it unwise for the Court to attempt to formulate a precise definition. He trusted prosecutors, judges, and juries to intelligently apply, on a case by case basis, the broad Thirteenth Amendment terms of involuntary servitude. Based on the facts in the record, he thought the jury instructions were fine, and that a new trial was not warranted.

Here is another case where Brennan actually got the better of the more conservative Justices. While the majority was rightly concerned about limiting the legal reach of involuntary servitude, Brennan had exactly the right legal test to address those concerns. His points seem pretty well unanswerable, and I wish his opinion had been the majority one.


Communications Workers v. Beck

487 U. S. 735

June 29, 1988

A union forced non-member employees to pay dues. Under the law, the union had this right, but the non-members objected to the fact that some of the dues went not toward collective bargaining activity, but to political causes and activism. They contended that this usage of union dues violated, among other things, section 8(a)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). As non-members, they argued that they should only have to pay the money necessary for core activities like being represented in collective bargaining.

The Supreme Court agreed 5-3 (Kennedy did not participate). Brennan began by unanimously brushing aside the usual whining about justiciability, and turned to the merits. The case, he contended, was squarely controlled by a precedent from 1961, which held that a nearly identical provision in the Railway Labor Act (RLA) meant that unions could not force non-members to pay for more than the cost of core union activities. Indeed, the language was nearly identical precisely because Congress wanted the RLA and the NLRA to operate under the same rule. The goal, in both cases, was to address the ‘free rider’ problem of non-members paying nothing, but reaping the benefits of the union’s bargaining with the employer. Brennan was unimpressed by various contrary arguments based on legislative history.

Blackmun, joined by O’Connor and Scalia, dissented. He noted that the actual text of 8(a)(3) really didn’t support the majority’s interpretation. Instead, it meant that non-members could be required to pay the full amount of union dues, including any amount used for political activities. Blackmun stressed that, despite the superficial similarity of the sections in the RLA and the NLRA, the motivations behind their enactment were slightly different, and that the interpretation of one should not necessarily control the interpretation of the other.

This has one of the weirdest voting lineups ever. True, there are rare occasions where Brennan and Marshall vote against unions, but never when O’Connor and Scalia are voting for them! I don’t quite understand Brennan’s motivations here, but I’m certainly pleased with the result. While the dissent may have a stronger legal argument, the majority opinion was at least good public policy.

Lingle v. Norge Div. of Magic Chef, Inc.

486 U. S. 399

June 6, 1988

A union worker was fired, ostensibly for filing a worker’s compensation claim. An Illinois law allowed the worker to receive extensive damages if the firing truly was retaliation for requesting worker’s compensation. The company responded that this state law was pre-empted by the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA). The LMRA, as per Court precedent, preempts all state laws that require the interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement. Because the collective bargaining agreement defined “just cause” for firing, the company argued that the Illinois law must be preempted.

The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed. Stevens said that the Illinois courts were not required to refer to the collective bargaining agreement when considering the case. Because the Illinois courts could potentially find that the firing was unjust purely as a matter of state law, there was no need for preemption. Stevens emphasized that a few different precedents counseled strongly against finding preemption too easily. The Court’s legal holding was correct, but as always, I very much dislike as a public policy the federal regime of pampering unions.

McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co.

486 U. S. 128

May 16, 1988

A labor law had a statute of limitations of 2 years in most cases, but 3 years in cases of “willful” violations. A labor dispute at a shoe company ended up turning on which limitation applied. Many lower courts had held that a violation was “willful” if the employee knew that that labor law was “in the picture.” The shoe company charged that this definition was way overbroad.

In a 6-3 ruling, the Court agreed. Stevens said that the “in the picture” standard could probably make almost any violation “willful.” In a recent case about a different law, “willful” had been defined as knowing that your conduct is illegal, or showing reckless disregard for that possibility. That, Stevens said, was an appropriate definition. He dismissed an alternative definition which would make “willful” any action taken despite knowledge of an appreciable possibility of illegality. That definition, said Stevens, could render a violation based on a good faith misinterpretation “willful.”

Marshall, joined by Brennan and Blackmun, thought the ‘appreciable possibility’ definition was totally appropriate. The definition that the majority adopted might have worked fine for the law it was originally crafted for, but textual differences between that law and the labor law at issue counseled against adopting the same definition so readily. Sorry Marshall, but I’m not convinced. The majority’s narrow definition is good, and I’m glad it was adopted.

Postal Service v. Letter Carriers

485 U. S. 680

April 27, 1988

A postman named Edward Hyde was fired for unlawfully delaying mail delivery. According to a collective bargaining agreement, postmen could only be fired for “just cause,” and an arbitrator unaccountably ruled that failing to deliver mail on time was not “just cause.” A District Court tried to set aside the arbitrator’s ruling as contrary to public policy, but the Court of Appeals said that no clearly defined public policy had been violated.

By a per curiam order, the Court dismissed the case as improvidently granted. While the Court of Appeals was probably technically correct, the facts of the case are utterly appalling. If failing to deliver mail isn’t “just cause” for a mailman being fired, then what the h3ll is?

Landers v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation

485 U. S. 652

April 27, 1988

Amtrak had a collective bargaining agreement with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers union (BLE). This agreement said that only the BLE could represent employees at disciplinary proceedings. An Amtrak engineer who belonged to a different union wanted that union to represent him instead. He said that the Railway Labor Act gave him that right.

White wrote for a unanimous Court against the engineer. While the Railway Labor Act did give employees the right to belong to rival unions, it also said that disciplinary proceedings would go forth according to the provisions in the collective bargaining agreement. White found it significant that the Act specifically allowed for an employee’s choice of representation in a different kind of dispute proceeding. This strongly implied that the same choice was not given for the proceeding at issue.

White also gave some insight as to why all this was good public policy. Some nonsense about not inflaming bitter rivalry between members of different unions. It makes no difference to me. Railway engineers shouldn’t have to belong to a union in the first place, and the Railway Labor Act shouldn’t exist. Unions delenda est!

Regents of Univ. of Cal. v. Public Employment Relations Bd.

485 U. S. 589

April 20, 1988

An employee union wanted to use the University of California’s postage-free internal mail system. The union claimed that a California law gave them this right, but the University responded that federal law against postage-free delivery trumped this. There were some statutory exceptions to the federal law against private mail delivery, such as the ‘letters-of-the-carrier’ and the ‘private-hands’ ones. The postal service itself said that these exceptions did not apply, but the union pressed forth its challenge undaunted.

The Court ruled 6-2 that the University should not carry the union mail (Kennedy did not participate). O’Connor first looked at the ‘letters-of-the-carrier’ exception, which said that entirely internal mail was exempt from the US postal service. Because the union was not in fact a part of the University, the mail was not entirely internal and the exception did not apply. Then there was the ‘private-hands’ exception, which said that mail could be delivered outside the postal service if there was no compensation for it. O’Connor said that non-monetary compensation such as business quid-pro-quos qualified as ‘compensation’ for this exception. Because carrying union letters could be seen as a way of currying the goodwill of the employee union, this exception did not apply either.

White, concurring in judgment, did not think the precise reach of the statutory exceptions was as clear as O’Connor thought, but was willing to give the harmonious interpretations of postal service Chevron deference. Stevens, joined by Marshall, dissented, and argued that the ‘private-hands’ exception applied. Looking through legislative history, and some earlier court cases, he concluded that the majority’s expansion of the term ‘compensation’ to include non-monetary goodwill could not be justified. Thus, the University was required to follow California law and carry union mail.

This is one of those preemption cases where the parties are caught between two crappy laws. The postal service’s ruthless attempt at monopoly is pretty silly, but California’s demand that universities deliver union mail free of charge is even worse. In any event, White had the most legally persuasive opinion. This was a simple Chevron case that the majority and dissent both made much harder than it needed to be.

Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Coast Building & Constr. Trades Council

485 U. S. 568

April 20, 1988

Unions distributed leaflets urging customers to boycott an entire mall, because just one business there had hired just one construction company which allegedly was mean to unions. A labor board found that this union activity broke a law, even though that law arguably violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. A Court of Appeals disagreed with the labor board’s interpretation of the law, and held that the law did not actually ban peaceful leafletting, so the union was in the clear.

Unanimously, the Supreme Court backed up the Court of Appeals (Kennedy did not participate, and Scalia and O’Connor concurred in judgment without opinion). While the labor board’s interpretation would normally get Chevron deference, there was an exception when an agency’s interpretation might violate the Constitution. In those cases, courts could look for and adopt a narrower reading. White said that the law was written to stop practices that might “threaten, coerce, or restrain” potential consumers. Because peaceful leafletting, unaccompanied by picketing, arguably did not do this, White adopted the narrower interpretation of the law.

Legislative history was similarly murky on the law’s reach, and a much analyzed colloquy between Senators Kennedy and Goldwater failed to yield a definite answer either. White also pointed out that under the labor board’s interpretation, even a private meeting which urged a boycott would be considered illegal. I would have liked to have at least read a dissent, but this ruling doesn’t bother me too much. The underlying facts of the case however, are just more proof that American unions are frequently unhinged and totally irrational.

FLRA v. Aberdeen Proving Ground, Dept. of Army

485 U. S. 409

April 4, 1988

Federal employers do not need to negotiate with unions over any matter where the employer is just following regulations – unless the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) determines that there is no “compelling need” for the regulation. There was a dispute at an army base about Black Friday being a day off. The army stood behind a regulation, but the union began an unfair labor practice proceeding anyway. The FLRA backed the union, without first determining that there was no “compelling need” for the regulation.

In an unanimous per curiam, the Supreme Court stopped these FLRA shenanigans. The statutory text, legislative history, and purposes of the law were all in agreement. The FLRA simply could not rule for a union in an unfair labor practice proceeding without first deciding that there wasn’t a compelling need for the regulation. Open and shut plain language case. There’s been quite a few of those lately. It’s really a shame that courts have to waste so much time with litigation involving blatant failures to abide by simple statutory text.

Lyng v. Automobile Workers

485 U. S. 360

March 23, 1988

The famous 1981 omnibus budget denied strikers the privilege of receiving food stamps. Predictably, unions were outraged, and tried to get this declared unconstitutional. They argued that it violated the associative and expressive rights of strikers, along with the Equal Protection clause.

The Supreme Court smacked down the unions 5-3 (Kennedy did not participate). White pointed out that food stamps were a privilege, and that the government is not required to fund every exercise of associative or expressive rights. Furthermore, it was pretty unlikely that anyone would decide against joining a union or living in a household just because of the food stamp issue. The government had not done any affirmative harm against unions or strikers – it had merely withdrawn a financial privilege. Finally, White said there was plenty rational basis for singling out strikers. In particular, it made the government more neutral in labor disputes, because strikers could hold out much longer if they were getting tax subsidized food stamps indefinitely.

Marshall, joined by Brennan and Blakmun, threw a babyish temper tantrum and called it a ‘dissent.’ He could not find a single rational basis for the law. Saving federal money was not good enough, because you could save federal money by discriminating against a protected class. Wanting to allocate money to those actually out of work was not good enough either, because those who strike are still in need of food. Finally, neutrality in labor disputes was not good enough, because company officials who oppose strikers could still get food stamps during a strike. Then, Marshall argued the law was simply a measure geared toward discouraging and ending strikes, and punishing those who chose to strike. You might think that this would constitute a pretty solid rational basis for the law, but in Marshall’s eyes, such an “animus” toward strikers was hateful and bigoted, and thus irrational.

Marshall is dead wrong. Strikes are evil, and emphatically do deserve to be squelched. And those who strike emphatically do deserve to suffer consequences for it. The last thing strikers deserve is having their evil rewarded by government money. Here’s a few Bible verses on the subject:

1 Peter 2:18: Submit with all fear to your masters, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.

2 Thessalonians 3:10: This is what we commanded you: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.”

1 Timothy 5:8: But if anyone does not provide for his own, that is his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

There you have it. Once again, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun are those who “call evil good and good evil.” Sadly, it won’t be the last time.