309 U.S. 206 (1940), 193, Labor Board v. Waterman Steamship Corp.

Docket Nº:No.193
Citation:309 U.S. 206, 60 S.Ct. 493, 84 L.Ed. 704
Party Name:Labor Board v. Waterman Steamship Corp.
Case Date:February 12, 1940
Court:United States Supreme Court

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309 U.S. 206 (1940)

60 S.Ct. 493, 84 L.Ed. 704

Labor Board


Waterman Steamship Corp.


United States Supreme Court

Feb. 12, 1940

Argued January 3, 1940




1. Certiorari granted to determine whether there was substantial evidence to sustain an order of the National Labor Relations Board which the court below declined to enforce as based on mere suspicion. Pp. 207-209.

2. The requirement of the Act that "The findings of the Board, as to the facts, if supported by evidence, shall . . . be conclusive," must be scrupulously obeyed by the courts. P. 208.

3. An employer-employee relationship within the scope of the National Labor Relations Act may subsist through mutual understanding between the owner of a vessel and members of its crew after its return from a foreign voyage and after the crew, appearing with the master before a shipping commissioner, have been paid off and "discharged" and have executed with the master a mutual release of "all claims for wages in respect of past voyage or engagement," as provided by 46 U.S.C. §§ 564, 641, 644. P. 211.

4. A contract between an employer and a labor union for preferential treatment of the latter in filling vacancies held not to require the former to discharge employees because of their having joined another union. P. 213.

5. In forbidding an employer to terminate an employee's tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment because of union activity or affiliation, § 8(1)(3) of the Labor Act embraces all elements of the employment relationship which in fact customarily attend employment and with respect to which an employer's discrimination may as readily be the means of interfering with employees' right of self-organization as if these elements were precise terms of a written contract of employment. P. 218.

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6. For the purpose of the Act, it is immaterial that employment is at will, and terminable at any time by either party. P. 219.

7. There was substantial evidence to support the findings of the Board:

(1) That, by custom recognized by the respondent ship company, crews of ships returned from abroad, notwithstanding expiration of their shipping articles, have, unless discharged for cause, a continuing tenure or relationship with their employer entitling them to resign for future voyages. P. 213.

(2) That the employment or "tenure" of crews and of two licensed officers was terminated because of their affiliations with a union other than that with which the employer had made a preferential contract. P. 220.

(3) That, pending an election directed by the Board to permit the ships' crews to select their bargaining agencies, the employer had interfered with its employees' free right to elect a union of their own choosing under § 7 of the Act by refusing to grant ships' passes to representatives of the rival union, while at the same time issuing passes to representatives of the union having the preferential contract. P. 224.

103 F.2d 157 reversed.

Certiorari, 308 U.S. 534, to review a decision declining to enforce an order of the National Labor Relations Board and setting it aside.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Court below, upon petition of respondent to set aside an order of the Labor Board, decided that the Board's order was not supported by substantial evidence, said the order was based on mere suspicion, and declined

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to enforce it. Whether the court properly reached that conclusion is the single question here.

We do not ordinarily grant certiorari to review judgments based solely on questions of fact. In its petition, however, the Board earnestly contended that the record before the Court of Appeals had presented "clear and overwhelming proof" that the Waterman Steamship Company had been guilty of a most flagrant mass discrimination against its employees in violation of the National Labor Relations Act, and that the court had unwarrantedly interfered with the exclusive jurisdiction granted the Board by Congress. The Board's petition also charged that the present was one of a series of decisions in which the court below had failed "to give effect to the provisions of the Act that the findings of the Board as to facts, if supported by evidence, shall be conclusive."1

In that Act, Congress provided, "The findings of the Board as to the facts, if supported by evidence, shall be conclusive."2 It is of paramount importance that courts not encroach upon this exclusive [60 S.Ct. 496] power of the Board if effect is to be given the intention of Congress to apply an orderly, informed and specialized procedure to the complex administrative problems arising in the solution of industrial disputes. As it did in setting up other administrative bodies, Congress has left questions of law which arise before the Board -- but not more -- ultimately to the traditional review of the judiciary. Not by accident, but in line with a general policy, Congress has

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deemed it wise to entrust the finding of facts to these specialized agencies. It is essential that courts regard this division of responsibility which Congress, as a matter of policy, has embodied in the very statute from which the Court of Appeals derived its jurisdiction to act. And therefore charges by public agencies constitutionally created -- such as the Board -- that their duly conferred jurisdiction has been invaded so that their statutory duties cannot be effectively fulfilled raise questions of high importance. For this reason, we granted certiorari.3

Respondent, Waterman Steamship Company, of Mobile, Alabama, is engaged in maritime transportation between this country, Europe, and the West Indies. Upon complaint made by the National Maritime Union, a labor organization affiliated with the Committee for Industrial Organization, the Board held hearings and found that respondent had, at Mobile, laid up the ships "Bienville" (27 days) and "Fairland" (7 days) for dry-docking and repairs, and had, in violation of the National Labor Relations Act:

(a) discharged and refused to reinstate, because of membership in the NMU, the entire unlicensed crew and the chief steward, Edmund J. Pelletier, of the Steamship "Bienville," and all but three of the crew of the Steamship "Fairland;"

(b) discharged and refused to reinstate C.J. O'Conner, second assistant engineer of the "Azalea City" because of his activities in representing aggrieved members of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, a labor organization of licensed ship personnel affiliated with the CIO;

(c) and, pending an election directed by the Board to permit the ships' crews to select their bargaining agencies,

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had interfered with its employees' free right to select a union of their own choosing under Section 7 of the Act by refusing to grant ships' passes to representatives of the CIO affiliate, while at the same time issuing passes to representatives of the International Seaman's Union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.4

The Board's order in question was based on the foregoing findings.

A clear understanding of the issues presented by the mass discharge of the crews of the "Bienville" and the "Fairland" necessitates initial reference to the Federal laws governing engagement of seamen for foreign voyages. There is provision, 46 U.S.C. § 564, that a master of any vessel bound from the United States to foreign ports (with exceptions not pertinent)

shall, before he proceeds on such voyage, make an agreement, in writing or in print, with every seaman whom he carries to sea as one of the crew. . . .

This written agreement, commonly referred to in maritime circles as articles, must specify the nature and duration of the intended voyage or engagement; the port or country at which the voyage will terminate; the number and description of the crew and their employments; the time each seaman must be on board to begin work and the capacity in which he is to serve; wages; provisions to be furnished [60 S.Ct. 497] each seaman; regulations to which the seaman will be subjected on board such as fines, short allowance of provisions, or other

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lawful punishments for misconduct, and stipulations of any advance and allotment of the seaman's wages. And the provisions of 46 U.S.C. §§ 567, 568, impose penalties for carrying seamen in ships' crews on foreign voyages without entering into the required articles. All seamen

discharged in the United States from merchant vessels engaged in voyages . . . to any foreign port . . . shall be discharged and receive their wages in the presence of a duly authorized shipping commissioner. . . .

Id., § 641. The master and each seaman shall "in the presence of the shipping commissioner, . . . sign a mutual release of all claims for wages in respect of the past voyage or engagement;" the release must be recorded in a book which shall be kept by the commissioner, and such release

shall operate as a mutual discharge and settlement of all demands for wages between the parties . . on account of wages, in respect of the past voyage or engagement.

Id., § 644. (Italics supplied.)

Respondent, the Waterman Company, has taken the position that, when the crews of the "Bienville" and "Fairland" received their wages and signed off statutory articles in Mobile, all tenure of employment and employment relationship of these men were at an end. From this premise, the Company insists that vacancies were created as the men signed off and, under an outstanding contract with the ISU, preference in filling these vacancies had to be given to members of the ISU unless...

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