Felte v. Southern Pacific Co, 269

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation359 U.S. 326,3 L.Ed.2d 854,79 S.Ct. 847
Docket NumberNo. 269,269
PartiesMarion S. FELTE, o n Behalf of Himself and Others Similarly Situated, Petitioner, v. SOUTHERN PACIFIC CO. et al
Decision Date27 April 1959

359 U.S. 326
79 S.Ct. 847
3 L.Ed.2d 854
Marion S. FELTE, o n Behalf of Himself and Others Similarly Situated, Petitioner,



No. 269.
Argued March 24, 1959.
Decided April 27, 1959.

Mr. Harry E. Wilmarth, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for petitioner.

Mr. Clifton Hildebrand, Oakland, Cal., for respondents.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Railway Labor Act1 was amended in 1951 to authorize labor organizations representing employees of

Page 327

carriers to make 'checkoff' agreements with the carriers for the deduction from employees' wages of periodic dues, initiation fees and assessments. Section 2 Eleventh (b), as added by 64 Stat. 1238, 45 U.S.C. § 152 Eleventh (b), 45 U.S.C.A. § 152, subd. 11(b).2 The amendment contains a proviso '(t)hat no such agreement shall be effective with respect to any individual employee until he shall have furnished the employer with a written assignment to the labor organization * * * which shall be revocable in writing after the expiration of one year * * *.' (Emphasis supplied.) In this case the Dues Deduction Agreement between respondents Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and Southern Pacific Company required that there be used, as a necessary form for revoking an assignment, nothing other than a writing executed on a form furnished by the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and forwarded by that organization to the employer.3 The petitioner challenges this contractual

Page 328

regulation as violative of the employee's statutory right to revoke the assignment. The District Court for the Northern District of California held that the requirement was valid, reasoning that although it 'may seem a bit arbitrary' to allow revocation only by means of the form provided by the Trainmen, it was 'no burden' and was 'easily complied with.' 155 F.Supp. 315, 317. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit adopted the District Court's reasoning and affirmed. 256 F.2d 429. We granted certiorari to consider the important question of the scope of the proviso of § 2 Eleventh (b). 358 U.S. 812, 79 S.Ct. 60, 3 L.Ed.2d 56.

The petitioner is employed by respondent, Sothe rn Pacific Company, and through March 1957 was a member of respondent Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. He had executed an individual assignment authorizing the checkoff in his case. In March 1957, more than a year after his assignment had been in effect, petitioner decided to join the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen. He notified the Trainmen of his resignation by letter dated March 30, 1957, advising them that he was revoking the authorization to check off his dues and that he had sent a revocation form to the company. The same day a representative of the Conductors sent petitioner's executed revocation form to the company and handed an executed duplicate revocation form to the Secretary-Treasurer of petitioner's Lodge of the Trainmen.

The company and the Trainmen, relying on the provisions of the Dues Deduction Agreement, declined to honor the revocation forms executed by the petitioner, though they were identical with the form which the Dues Deduc-

Page 329

tion Agreement provided should be obtained from the Trainmen. The company advised that '(t) his matter is being directed to the attention of the appropriate officer of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen for handling in accordance with the Agreement.' The Trainmen's local Secretary-Treasurer in turn wrote the petitioner that the forms he had executed and submitted were not acceptable. He said that 'the only way that you can be released from Wage Assignment Authorization is by signing a regulation A—2 card furnished by me and forwarded by me to the Company.' He enclosed such a card for the petitioner's signature and noted 'We would be sorry to lose you as a member of the BRT and hope that you may reconsider.' As a result of the refusal of the company and the Trainmen to treat the petitioner's forms as valid, it was too late to stop the checkoff of petitioner's April 1957 wages.

The petitioner declined to execute any further forms and commenced this suit in the District Court against the company and the Trainmen. His complaint alleged that the action was brought under the Railway Labor Act, an 'Act of Congress regulating commerce'; in this posture the jurisdiction of the District Court was properly invoked under 28 U.S.C. § 1337, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1337.4 The complaint alleged that the action was brought on behalf of petitioner and others similarly situated; the parties are in dispute as to how many other employees were in fact similarly situated with petitioner, but, with the courts below, we do not find

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it necessary to resolve the dispute,5 and with them, we decide this case on the merits. The complaint prayed for a declaration that the petitioner, under the proviso, had complied with the requirements for effecting revocation and had terminated all authority of the company to check off his wages in favor of the Trainmen. Injunctive relief was also sought. The company and the Trainmen admitted that they were continuing to treat the petitioner's assignment as unrevoked, contending that the collective bargaining authority under the 1951 amendment to make checkoff agreements included authority to agree upon the challenged provisions of the Dues Deduction Agreement. We disagree with the District Court and the Court of Appeals and hold that the restrictive provisions of the Dues Deduction Agreement are violative of the 1951 amendment.

First. The 1951 amendment relaxed provisions of the Railway Labor Act dating from 1934 which had forbidden carriers and labor organizations from making either 'union-shop' arrangements,6 or arrangements whereby car-

Page 331

riers would check off from employee wages amounts owed to a labor organization for dues, initiation fees and assessments.7 It thus became lawful to bargain collectively for 'union-shop' and 'checkoff' arrangements; but this power was made subject to limitations. The limitation here pertinent is that, by force of the proviso, the authority to make checkoff arrangements does not include authority to bind individual employees to submit to the checkoff. Any agreement was to be ineffective as to an employee who did not furnish the employer with a written assignment in favor of the labor organization, and any assignment made was to be 'revocable in writing after the expiration of one year * * *.' This failure to authorize agreements binding empolyees to submit to the checkoff was deliberate on the part of Congress. Proposals to

Page 332

that end were expressly rejected. The bills originally introduced in the House and Senate, and favorably reported by the respective House and Senate Committees, would simply have authorized carriers and labor organizations 'to make agreements providing for the deduction by such carrier or carriers from the wages of its or their employees in a craft or class and payment to the labor organization representing the craft or class of such employees, of any dues, initiation fees or assessments which may be payable to such labor organization.' H.R.Rep. No. 2811, p. 1, and S.Rep. No. 2262, pp. 1—2, 81st Cong., 2d Sess. Indeed the House Report reveals that the choice finally made of making implementation of the checkoff a matter of individual employee assignment was at first considered and rejected; 'the committee thought that the making of such assignments * * * should remain a subject for collective bargaining.'8 But the matter had been a recurrent subject of concern particularly at the Senate Hearings, and between the time of the Committee Reports and the consideration of the bill on the Senate floor, the Senate Committee reversed its view and developed the proviso9 allowing the individual employee to decide for himself whether to submit to the checkoff, and whether to revoke an authorization after the expiration of one year. See 96 Cong.Rec. 15735, 16268.10 In this form the bill was passed by both Houses and approved.

Page 333

The structure of § 2 Eleventh (b) then is simple: carriers and labor organizations are authorized to bargain for arrangements for a checkoff by the employer on behalf of the organization. Latitude is allowed in the terms of such arrangements, but not past the point such terms impinge upon the freedom expressly reserved to the individual employee to decide whether he will authorize the checkoff in his case. Similarly Congress consciously and deliberately chose to deny carriers and labor organizations authority to reach terms which would restrict the employee's complete freedom to revoke an assignment by a writing directed to the employer after one year. Congress was specifically concerned with keeping these areas of individual choice off the bargaining table. It is plainly our duty to effectuate this obvious intention of Congress, and we must therefore be careful

Page 334

not to allow the employee's freedom of decision to be eroded in the name of procedure, or otherwise. We see no authority given by the Act to carriers and labor organizations to restrict the employee's individual freedom of decision by such regulations as were agreed upon in he Dues Deduction Agreement. The question is not whether these restrictions might abstractly be called 'reasonable' or not.

Second. It is argued that the requirement that the revocation notice be on a form provided by the Trainmen is necessary in the interests of orderly procedure, and that the collective agreement provision was an appropriate place to specify this procedure. We might note that the original Committee rejection of the concept of individual authorization and revocation was supported for much the same reasons—that it was inconsistent with orderly procedure—but this view did not prevail finally in the Act.11 Of course, the parties may act to minimize the procedural problems caused by Congress' choice. Carriers and labor...

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