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High Court Bars Unions From Punishing Defectors in Strikes : Peril to Solidarity of Workers Seen by Organized Labor

Associated Press

The Supreme Court said today that labor unions may not take disciplinary action to prevent member defections during strikes, a ruling that organized labor said threatens worker solidarity.

By a 5-4 vote, the court upheld a decision of the National Labor Relations Board that barred a union in the Midwest from taking disciplinary action against members who quit the union during a 1977 strike.

“The board was justified in concluding that (a union rule) restricting the right of employees to resign impairs the policy of voluntary unionism,” Justice Lewis F. Powell said for the court.

There is nothing in the history of federal labor law to require a different outcome, Powell added.

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The case stemmed from a strike by members of the Pattern Makers’ League of North America against companies in Rockford, Ill., and Beloit, Wis.

Eleven union members quit the union and returned to work after the strike began. The union imposed fines on 10 of the workers and expelled the 11th.

The NLRB ruled that the union violated a federal law barring coercion by unions to force workers to take part in collective bargaining activities.

7th Circuit Upholds NLRB

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The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the NLRB in the pattern makers’ case.

But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected the NLRB position in a West Coast case, creating a split between the appeals courts that set the stage for today’s ruling.

Some labor leaders said the current case comes at a time when organized labor is suffering an erosion in its power, with declining membership and contract concessions caused by economic hard times.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Harry A. Blackmun said today’s ruling “improperly restricts a union’s federally protected right to make and enforce its own rules and . . . (threatens) the balance of power between labor and management.”

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Civil Rights Lawsuits

In other cases today, the court:

--Ruled that people who win civil rights lawsuits are not entitled to have the losing side pay for lawyer fees they incur after rejecting a settlement offer more favorable than the relief eventually won.

The 6-3 decision in a case from Illinois gives civil rights defendants a powerful tool in efforts to encourage out-of-court settlements.

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At the same time, one effect of the decision could be to deter civil rights litigation. In many such cases, lawyer fees total more than the cash judgments awarded.

--In a victory for the insurance industry and businesses in general, protected worker benefit plans from paying for mishandling disability claims.

By a 9-0 vote, the court shielded from suit an insurance company in Los Angeles accused of improperly cutting off benefits to a woman who worked for the firm.


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