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31.4 Case

Exclusivity

Emporium Capwell Co. v. Western Addition Community Organization

420 U.S. 50 (1975)

The Emporium Capwell Company (Company) operates a department store in San Francisco. At all times relevant to this litigation it was a party to the collective-bargaining agreement negotiated by the San Francisco Retailer’s Council, of which it was a member, and the Department Store Employees Union (Union), which represented all stock and marketing area employees of the Company. The agreement, in which the Union was recognized as the sole collective-bargaining agency for all covered employees, prohibited employment discrimination by reason of race, color, creed, national origin, age, or sex, as well as union activity. It had a no-strike or lockout clause, and it established grievance and arbitration machinery for processing any claimed violation of the contract, including a violation of the anti-discrimination clause.

On April 3, 1968, a group of Company employees covered by the agreement met with the secretary-treasurer of the Union, Walter Johnson, to present a list of grievances including a claim that the Company was discriminating on the basis of race in making assignments and promotions. The Union official agreed to certain of the grievances and to investigate the charge of racial discrimination. He appointed an investigating committee and prepared a report on the employees’ grievances, which he submitted to the Retailer’s Council and which the Council in turn referred to the Company. The report described “the possibility of racial discrimination” as perhaps the most important issue raised by the employees and termed the situation at the Company as potentially explosive if corrective action were not taken. It offers as an example of the problem the Company’s failure to promote a Negro stock employee regarded by other employees as an outstanding candidate but a victim of racial discrimination.

Shortly after receiving the report, the Company’s labor relations director met representatives and agreed to “look into the matter” of discrimination, and see what needed to be done. Apparently unsatisfied with these representations, the Union held a meeting in September attended by Union officials, Company employees, and representatives of the California Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and the local anti-poverty agency. The secretary-treasurer of the Union announced that the Union had concluded that the Company was discriminating, and that it would process every such grievance through to arbitration if necessary. Testimony about the Company’s practices was taken and transcribed by a court reporter, and the next day the Union notified the Company of its formal charge and demanded that the union-management Adjustment Board be convened “to hear the entire case.”

At the September meeting some of the Company’s employees had expressed their view that the contract procedures were inadequate to handle a systemic grievance of this sort; they suggested that the Union instead begin picketing the store in protest. Johnson explained that the collective agreement bound the Union to its processes and expressed his view that successful grievants would be helping not only themselves but all others who might be the victims of invidious discrimination as well. The FEPC and anti-poverty agency representatives offered the same advice. Nonetheless, when the Adjustment Board meeting convened on October 16, James Joseph Hollins, Torn Hawkins, and two other employees whose testimony the Union had intended to elicit refused to participate in the grievance procedure. Instead, Hollins read a statement objecting to reliance on correction of individual inequities as an approach to the problem of discrimination at the store and demanding that the president of the Company meet with the four protestants to work out a broader agreement for dealing with the issue as they saw it. The four employees then walked out of the hearing.

…On Saturday, November 2, Hollins, Hawkins, and at least two other employees picketed the store throughout the day and distributed at the entrance handbills urging consumers not to patronize the store. Johnson encountered the picketing employees, again urged them to rely on the grievance process, and warned that they might be fired for their activities. The pickets, however, were not dissuaded, and they continued to press their demand to deal directly with the Company president.

On November 7, Hollins and Hawkins were given written warnings that a repetition of the picketing or public statements about the Company could lead to their discharge. When the conduct was repeated the following Saturday, the two employees were fired.

[T]he NLRB Trial Examiner found that the discharged employees had believed in good faith that the Company was discriminating against minority employees, and that they had resorted to concerted activity on the basis of that belief. He concluded, however, that their activity was not protected by § 7 of the Act and that their discharges did not, therefore, violate S 8(a)(1).

The Board, after oral argument, adopted the findings and conclusions of its Trial Examiner and dismissed the complaint. Among the findings adopted by the Board was that the discharged employees’ course of conduct was no mere presentation of a grievance but nothing short of a demand that the [Company] bargain with the picketing employees for the entire group of minority employees.

The Board concluded that protection of such an attempt to bargain would undermine the statutory system of bargaining through an exclusive, elected representative, impede elected unions’ efforts at bettering the working conditions of minority employees, “and place on the Employer an unreasonable burden of attempting to placate self-designated representatives of minority groups while abiding by the terms of a valid bargaining agreement and attempting in good faith to meet whatever demands the bargaining representative put forth under that agreement.”

On respondent’s petition for review the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. The court was of the view that concerted activity directed against racial discrimination enjoys a “unique status” by virtue of the national labor policy against discrimination.…The issue, then, is whether such attempts to engage in separate bargaining are protected by 7 of the Act or proscribed by § 9(a).

Central to the policy of fostering collective bargaining, where the employees elect that course, is the principle of majority rule. If the majority of a unit chooses union representation, the NLRB permits it to bargain with its employer to make union membership a condition of employment, thus, imposing its choice upon the minority.

In vesting the representatives of the majority with this broad power, Congress did not, of course, authorize a tyranny of the majority over minority interests. First, it confined the exercise of these powers to the context of a “unit appropriate” for the purposes of collective bargaining, i.e., a group of employees with a sufficient commonality of circumstances to ensure against the submergence of a minority with distinctively different interests in the terms and conditions of their employment. Second, it undertook in the 1959 Landrum-Griffin amendments to assure that minority voices are heard as they are in the functioning of a democratic institution. Third, we have held, by the very nature of the exclusive bargaining representative’s status as representative of all unit employees, Congress implicitly imposed upon it a duty fairly and in good faith to represent the interests of minorities within the unit. And the Board has taken the position that a union’s refusal to process grievances against racial discrimination in violation of that duty is an unfair labor practice.…

* * *

The decision by a handful of employees to bypass a grievance procedure in favor of attempting to bargain with their employer…may or may not be predicated upon the actual existence of discrimination. An employer confronted with bargaining demands from each of several minority groups who would not necessarily, or even probably, be able to agree to remain real steps satisfactory to all at once. Competing claims on the employer’s ability to accommodate each group’s demands, e.g., for reassignments and promotions to a limited number of positions, could only set one group against the other even if it is not the employer’s intention to divide and overcome them.…In this instance we do not know precisely what form the demands advanced by Hollins, Hawkins, et al, would take, but the nature of the grievance that motivated them indicates that the demands would have included the transfer of some minority employees to sales areas in which higher commissions were paid. Yet the collective-bargaining agreement provided that no employee would be transferred from a higher-paying to a lower-paying classification except by consent or in the course of a layoff or reduction in force. The potential for conflict between the minority and other employees in this situation is manifest. With each group able to enforce its conflicting demands—the incumbent employees by resort to contractual processes and minority employees by economic coercion—the probability of strife and deadlock is high; the making headway against discriminatory practices would be minimal.

* * *

Accordingly, we think neither aspect of respondent’s contention in support of a right to short-circuit orderly, established processes eliminating discrimination in employment is well-founded. The policy of industrial self-determination as expressed in § 7 does not require fragmentation of the bargaining unit along racial or other lines in order to consist with the national labor policy against discrimination. And in the face of such fragmentation, whatever its effect on discriminatory practices, the bargaining process that the principle of exclusive representation is meant to lubricate could not endure unhampered.

* * *

Reversed.

Case Questions

  1. Why did the picketers think that the union’s response had been inadequate?
  2. In becoming members of the union, which had a contract that included an antidiscrimination clause along with a no-strike clause and a no-lockout clause, did the protesting employees waive all right to pursue discrimination claims in court?