Unions Barred From Firing Dissenting Local Leaders

Times Labor Writer

In a major decision regarding the free speech rights of union members, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that labor unions may not fire elected local officials who disagree with policies of the parent union.

The 8-0 decision, written by Justice Thurgood Marshall, said that firing an elected official because he opposed a dues increase violated the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act. The act, he wrote, is designed “to ensure that unions are democratically governed and responsive to the will of the union membership as expressed in open, periodic elections.”

Marshall said that permitting an official to be fired for expressing dissenting opinions would lead union members to conclude “that one challenged the union hierarchy, if at all, at one’s peril. That is precisely what Congress sought to prevent when it passed” the 1959 law.

Wednesday’s decision affirmed a 1986 ruling of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The AFL-CIO was sufficiently concerned about the case that it filed a brief on behalf of the Sheet Metal Workers International Assn., the union directly involved in the case. The AFL-CIO feared that an adverse ruling would restrict national unions’ abilities to operate as freely as they choose. Lawyers for the AFL-CIO and the Sheet Metal Workers International did not return calls asking for comment.


Herman Benson, president of the nonprofit Assn. for Union Democracy, called the decision “extremely important.” He said that ever since a 1982 decision of the high court upholding the rights of a newly elected local union president to fire officials appointed by his predecessor, the job security of elected officials had also been in question.

1982 Dispute Over Dues

Wednesday’s decision arose out of a 1982 dispute in a Los Angeles local of the Sheet Metal Workers International over whether to impose a dues increase to help remedy the local’s financial problems. Edward Lynn, an elected business agent of the local, opposed the dues increase. He and other members of Local 75 asserted that officials of their local were paid considerably more than officials of comparable locals and contended that a salary reduction for them, rather than a dues increase, was the appropriate solution to the union’s difficulties.

Five days after the dues increase was voted down at a union meeting, Richard Hawkins, a trustee appointed by the Sheet Metal Workers International who favored the increase, told Lynn that he was being removed “indefinitely” from his position as business agent because of his outspoken opposition to the dues increase.

After exhausting his intra-union remedies, Lynn sued the union in federal District Court in Los Angeles in 1983. The District Court granted a summary judgment for the union, citing Finnegan vs. Leu, the 1982 decision that gave unions broad rights in firing appointed officials. Lynn appealed to the 9th Circuit and prevailed. Since there was a conflict among federal circuit courts on the issue, the Supreme Court took the case.

Wednesday’s decision means that Lynn, now working as a sheet metal worker for Los Angeles County, can now sue the union for wrongful discharge and damages.

Lynn, 54, said he was “happy for the rest of the union members in this country.” However, he said, he had to endure 18 months without work after the dues dispute because union officials refused to send him out on jobs. He still has a complaint pending at the National Labor Relations Board on allegations that the union illegally failed to dispatch him to jobs.

“Can you imagine getting a decision from the Supreme Court before the NLRB acts?” he asked. “Slow justice is no justice.”

Lynn’s lawyers said they were elated at the decision. Both Bruce Stark, a Los Angeles attorney who handled the case in the lower federal courts, and Paul Levy of the Public Citizen Litigation group in Washington, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, called the ruling “a great victory for union democracy.”

Levy added: “If union leaders could deprive their opponents of elected office, no member would feel safe in speaking out about union affairs, and dissent would be silenced.”

Marshall referred to the purposes of the 1959 law, whose first section is called a “Bill of Rights” for union members, in distinguishing the Lynn case from the 1982 Finnegan case. He said the goal of that section of the 1959 law was to ensure democratic union governance. Marshall said that allowing a newly elected local president to fire officials appointed by his predecessor did not frustrate that objective. “Rather, it ensured a union’s ‘responsiveness to the mandate of the union election,’ ” he said. He said the facts of the Lynn case presented just the opposite situation.