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Acosta v. Local Union 26

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 3, 2017

ALEXANDER ACOSTA, Secretary of Labor, United States Department of Labor, [1]Plaintiff,


          George A. O'Toole, Jr. United States District Judge.

         The Secretary of the United States Department of Labor (the “Department”) brought suit against Unite Here Local 26, alleging that the union violated § 104 of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (“LMRDA”), 29 U.S.C. § 414, when it permitted a member of Local 26 to inspect the union's collective bargaining agreements (“agreements” or “CBAs”) with employers other than the complainant's employer but refused to permit her to take notes while reviewing those agreements. The union disagrees with the Secretary's interpretation of the statute, contending that § 104 does not require a local union to allow a member or employee to inspect CBAs other than one that affects her own rights and, to the extent that the union does permit such inspection, the statute does not give a member the right to take unlimited notes on the contents of those CBAs. The parties have cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings regarding the proper statutory interpretation of § 104.

         I. The Controversy

         The complaining member, Dimie Poweigha, is employed as a server by Levy Restaurants. Local 26 has negotiated CBAs with more than forty employers, including Levy Restaurants. In 2014, Poweigha requested an opportunity to review thirty-seven CBAs negotiated by the union with employers other than her own. Although the union maintained that it was not required to allow her to inspect agreements other than her own, the union eventually agreed to permit inspection. However, the union refused to permit Poweigha to take notes during the inspection.

         II. Discussion

         Approximately twenty years after the National Labor Relations Act was passed, “Congress realized that vital non-economic interests of employees were not being adequately protected under existing legislation. The LMRDA was therefore enacted to regulate the internal affairs of labor unions and protect union members from autocratic abuses by union officials.” Doty v. Sewall, 784 F.2d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1986) (citations omitted). “In enacting the LMRDA, Congress found that ‘it is essential that labor organizations . . . and their officials adhere to the highest standards of responsibility and ethical conduct in administering the affairs of their organizations, ' and declared that the LMRDA was designed ‘to eliminate or prevent improper practices on the part of labor organizations.'” McCafferty v. Local 254, Serv. Emps. Int'l Union, 186 F.3d 52, 57 (1st Cir. 1999) (quoting 29 U.S.C. §§ 401(a), (c)).

         Title I of the LMRDA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 411-415, provides a “Bill of Rights” for union members. Id. (quoting Molina v. Union de Trabajadores de Muelles, 762 F.2d 166, 167 (1st Cir. 1985)). It was “specifically designed to promote the ‘full and active participation by the rank and file in the affairs of the union.'” Hall v. Cole, 412 U.S. 1, 7-8 (1973) (quoting Am. Fed. of Musicians v. Wittstein, 379 U.S. 171, 182-83 (1964)). The “rights enumerated in Title I were deemed ‘vital to the independence of the membership and the effective and fair operation of the union as the representative of its membership.'” Id. at 8 (footnote omitted) (quoting Cole v. Hall, 462 F.2d 777, 780 (2d Cir. 1972)); see also Wirtz v. Hotel, Motel & Club Emps. Union, Local 6, 391 U.S. 492, 497 (1968) (describing that purpose of LMRDA was “to protect the rights of rank-and-file members to participate fully in the operation of their union through processes of democratic self-government, and, through the election process, to keep the union leadership responsive to the membership”).

         The present controversy arises from a provision of the so-called “Bill of Rights” concerning the right of workers under defined circumstances to be able to review CBAs entered into by a labor organization, including local unions. Section 104, entitled “Right to copies of collective bargaining agreements, ” provides:

It shall be the duty of the secretary or corresponding principal officer of each labor organization, in the case of a local labor organization, to forward a copy of each collective bargaining agreement made by such labor organization with any employer to any employee who requests such a copy and whose rights as such employee are directly affected by such agreement, and in the case of a labor organization other than a local labor organization, to forward a copy of any such agreement to each constituent unit which has members directly affected by such agreement; and such officer shall maintain at the principal office of the labor organization of which he is an officer copies of any such agreement made or received by such labor organization, which copies shall be available for inspection by any member or by any employee whose rights are affected by such agreement. The provisions of section 440 of this title shall be applicable in the enforcement of this section.

29 U.S.C. § 414 (emphasis added).

         At particular issue is the proper construction to be given the italicized clause. The parties dispute whether the italicized clause requires a copy of any CBA the union is required to maintain for inspection at its principal office be made available to any member of the union on request, regardless of whether the requester's rights are affected by that CBA. They also dispute whether, to the extent inspection is permitted, the “member” or “employee” may take notes during that inspection.

         When tasked with interpreting a statute,

we begin our analysis with the statutory text and determine whether the same is plain and unambiguous. In so doing, we accord the statutory text “its ordinary meaning by reference to the ‘specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole.'” If the statutory language is plain and unambiguous, we “must apply the statute according to its terms, ” except in unusual cases where, for example, doing so would bring about absurd results. “If the statute is ambiguous, we look beyond the text to the legislative ...

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