County Sanitation Dist. No. 2 v. Los Angeles County Employees' Assn.

Citation38 Cal.3d 564,699 P.2d 835,214 Cal.Rptr. 424
Decision Date13 May 1985
Docket NumberAFL-CIO
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Parties, 699 P.2d 835, 119 L.R.R.M. (BNA) 2433, 53 USLW 2578 COUNTY SANITATION DISTRICT NO. 2 OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. LOS ANGELES COUNTY EMPLOYEES ASSOCIATION, LOCAL 660, Service Employees International Union,et al., Defendants and Appellants. L.A. 31850.

Leo Geffner, Jeffrey Paule and Geffner & Satzman, Los Angeles, for defendants and appellants.

Charles P. Scully, Donald C. Carroll, Charles P. Scully II, San Francisco, Jennifer Friesen, Fred Okrand, Glenn Rothner, Anthony R. Segall, Reich, Adell & Crost, Los Angeles, Victor J. Van Bourg, Van Bourg, Allen, Weinberg & Roger, San Francisco, A. Eugene Huguenin, Jr., Michael R. White, Raymond L. Hansen, Charles R. Gustafson, Henry R. Fenton and Levy, Ansell & Goldman, Los Angeles, as amici curiae on behalf of defendants and appellants.

Musick, Peeler & Garrett, Stuart W. Rudnick, Steven D. Weinstein and Neil O. Andrus, Los Angeles, for plaintiff and respondent.

George Agnost, City Atty., San Francisco, Philip S. Ward and Steven A. Diaz, Deputy City Attys., San Francisco, H. Jess Senecal, Jack T. Swafford, Burris, Lagerlof, Swift & Senecal, Los Angeles, Robert E. Murphy, San Francisco, Robin Leslie Stewart, Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard, Ronald A. Zumbrun and Anthony T. Caso, Sacramento, as amici curiae on behalf of plaintiff and respondent.


Defendants appeal from a judgment awarding plaintiff sanitation district damages and prejudgment interest in connection with defendant union's involvement in a labor strike against plaintiff. The case squarely presents issues of great import to public sector labor-management relations, namely whether all strikes by public employees are illegal and, if so, whether the striking union is liable in tort for compensatory damages. After careful review of a long line of case law and policy arguments, we conclude that the common law prohibition against all public employee strikes is no longer supportable. Therefore, the judgment for the plaintiff finding the strike to be unlawful and awarding damages, interest and costs must be reversed.

I. Statement of the Case.

Defendant union (Local 660 or the union) is a labor organization affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, and has been the certified bargaining representative of the blue collar employees of the Los Angeles Sanitation District since 1973. Plaintiff is one of 27 sanitation districts within Los Angeles County 1 and is charged with providing, operating and maintaining sewage transport and treatment facilities and landfill disposal sites throughout the county. 2 The District employs some 500 workers who are directly or indirectly responsible for the operation and maintenance of its facilities and who are members of, or represented by, Local 660. Since 1973, the District and Local 660 have bargained concerning wages, hours and working conditions pursuant to the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (MMBA). (Gov.Code, §§ 3500-3511.) Each year these negotiations have resulted in a binding labor contract or memorandum of understanding (MOU). (See Glendale City Employees' Assn. v. City of Glendale (1975) 15 Cal.3d 328, 124 Cal.Rptr. 513, 540 P.2d 609.)

On July 5, 1976, approximately 75 percent of the District's employees went out on strike after negotiations between the District and the union for a new wage and benefit agreement reached an impasse and failed to produce a new MOU. The District promptly filed a complaint for injunctive relief and damages and was granted a temporary restraining order. The strike continued for approximately 11 days, during which time the District was able to maintain its facilities and operations through the efforts of management personnel and certain union members who chose not to strike. 3 On July 16, the employees voted to accept a tentative agreement on a new MOU, the terms of which were identical to the District's offer prior to the strike.

The District then proceeded with the instant action for tort damages. The trial court found the strike to be unlawful and in violation of the public policy of the State of California and thus awarded the District $246,904 in compensatory damages, 4 prejudgment interest in the amount of $87,615.22 and costs of $874.65.

II. The Traditional Prohibition Against Public Employee Strikes.

Common law decisions in other jurisdictions at one time held that no employee, whether public or private, had a right to strike in concert with fellow workers. In fact, such collective action was generally viewed as a conspiracy and held subject to both civil and criminal sanctions. 5 Over the course of the 20th century, however, courts and legislatures gradually acted to change these laws as they applied to private sector employees; today, the right to strike is generally accepted as indispensable to the system of collective bargaining and negotiation, which characterizes labor-management relations in the private sector. 6

By contrast, American law continues to regard public sector strikes in a substantially different manner. A strike by employees of the United States government may still be treated as a crime, 7 and strikes by state and local employees have been explicitly allowed by courts or statute in only 11 states. 8

Contrary to the assertions of the plaintiff as well as various holdings of the Court of Appeal, 9 this court has repeatedly stated that the legality of strikes by public employees in California has remained an open question. In Los Angeles Met. Transit Authority v. Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (1960) 54 Cal.2d 684, 687-688, 8 Cal.Rptr. 1, 355 P.2d 905, this court stated in dictum that "[i]n the absence of legislative authorization public employees in general do not have the right to strike ..." but proceeded to hold that a statute affording public transit workers the right " 'to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collectively bargaining or other mutual aid or protection' " granted these employees a right to strike. However, in our very next opinion on the issue, In re Berry (1968) 68 Cal.2d 137, 65 Cal.Rptr. 273, 436 P.2d 273, we invalidated an injunction against striking public employees as unconstitutionally overbroad, and expressly reserved opinion on "the question whether strikes by public employees can be lawfully enjoined." (Id., p. 151, 65 Cal.Rptr. 273, 436 P.2d 273.)

In our next opportunity to examine public employee strikes, City and County of San Francisco v. Cooper (1975) 13 Cal.3d 898, 120 Cal.Rptr. 707, 534 P.2d 403, which involved a suit challenging the validity of a strike settlement agreement enacted by the city, we held only that such settlement agreements are valid. After noting the Court of Appeal holdings that public employee strikes are illegal and the employees' counterargument that such strikes are impliedly authorized by statute, our unanimous opinion declared that we had no occasion to resolve that controversy in that action. (Id., p. 912, 120 Cal.Rptr. 707, 534 P.2d 403.)

In a similar vein, this court has carefully and explicitly reserved judgment on the issue of the legality of public employee strikes on at least three other occasions in recent years. 10 Indeed, our reluctance to address the issue head-on has elicited critical commentary from both dissenting and concurring opinions, which have urged us to resolve the question once and for all. 11 While we had ample reason for deciding the aforementioned cases without determining the broader question of the right of public employees to strike, the instant case presents us with the proper circumstances for direct consideration of this fundamental issue.

Before commencing our discussion, however, we must note that the Legislature has also chosen to reserve judgment on the general legality of strikes in the public sector. As Justice Grodin observed in his concurring opinion in El Rancho Unified School Dist. v. National Education Assn., supra, 33 Cal.3d 946, 964, 192 Cal.Rptr. 123, 663 P.2d 893, "the Legislature itself has steadfastly refrained from providing clearcut guidance." With the exception of firefighters (Lab.Code, § 1962), no statutory prohibition against strikes by public employees in this state exists. 12 The MMBA, the statute under which the present controversy arose, does not directly address the question of strikes.

The MMBA sets forth the rights of municipal and county employees in CALIFORNIA. (GOV.CODE, §§ 350013-3511.) The MMBA protects the right of such employees "to form, join, and participate in the activities of employee organizations ... for the purpose of representation on all matters of employer-employee relations." It also requires public employers to "meet and confer" in good faith with employee representatives on all issues within the scope of representation. As explained in its preamble, one of the MMBA's main purposes is to improve communications between public employees and their employers by providing a reasonable method for resolving disputes. A further stated purpose is to promote improved personnel relations by "providing a uniform basis for recognizing the right of public employees to join organizations of their own choice." 14

On its face, the MMBA neither denies nor grants local employees the right to strike. This omission is noteworthy since the Legislature has not hesitated to expressly prohibit strikes for certain classes of public employees. For example, the above-noted prohibition against strikes by firefighters was enacted nine years before the passage of the MMBA and remains in effect today. Moreover, the MMBA includes firefighters within its provisions. Thus, the absence of any such limitation on other public employees covered by the MMBA at the very least implies a lack of legislative...

To continue reading

Request your trial
36 cases
  • Long Beach City Employees Assn. v. City of Long Beach
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • June 19, 1986
    ...judicial scrutiny unless justified by a compelling governmental interest. (County Sanitation Dist. No. 2 v. Los Angeles County Employees' Assn. (1985) 38 Cal.3d 564, 585-586, 590, 214 Cal.Rptr. 424, 699 P.2d 835.) However much public service constitutes a benefit and imposes a duty to uphol......
  • Jefferson County Bd. of Educ. v. Jefferson County Educ. Ass'n
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • April 12, 1990
    ...that such a right exists even in the absence of statute. They rely primarily on County Sanitation Dist. No. 2 v. Los Angeles County Employees Ass'n, Local No. 660, 38 Cal.3d 564, 214 Cal.Rptr. 424, 699 P.2d 835, cert. denied, 474 U.S. 995, 106 S.Ct. 408, 88 L.Ed.2d 359 (1985). In County San......
  • Service Employees Internat. Union v. County of Los Angeles
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • November 27, 1990
    ...has overlooked the important distinction between public and private employment. In County Sanitation Dist. No. 2 v. Los Angeles County Employees' Assn. (1985) 38 Cal.3d 564, 214 Cal.Rptr. 424, 699 P.2d 835 the California Supreme court discussed this distinction with respect to the right to ......
  • Santa Clara County Counsel Attys. Assn. v. Woodside
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • March 31, 1994
    ...of county government. Under closer scrutiny, however, the analogy falls apart. In County Sanitation Dist. No. 2 v. Los Angeles County Employees Ass'n (1985) 38 Cal.3d 564, 214 Cal.Rptr. 424, 699 P.2d 835, we abrogated the common law doctrine that prohibited public employee strikes. In doing......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT