National Labor Relations Board v. Erie Resistor Corporation

Decision Date13 May 1963
Docket NumberNo. 288,288
Citation83 S.Ct. 1139,373 U.S. 221,10 L.Ed.2d 308
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Norton J. Come, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

John G. Wayman, Pittsburgh, Pa., for respondents.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question before us is whether an employer commits an unfair labor practice under § 8(a)1 of the National Labor Relations Act, 61 Stat. 136, 29 U.S.C. § 158, when he extends a 20-year seniority credit to strike replacements and strikers who leave the strike and return to work. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in this case joined the Ninth Circuit, National Labor Relations Board v. Potlatch Forests, Inc., 189 F.2d 82 (and see National Labor Relations Board v. Lewin-Mathes Co., 285 F.2d 329, from the Seventh Circuit), to hold that such super-seniority awards are not unlawful absent a showing of an illegal motive on the part of the employer. 303 F.2d 359. The Sixth Circuit, Swarco, Inc., v. National Labor Relations Board, 303 F.2d 668, and the National Labor Relations Board are of the opinion that such conduct can be unlawful even when the employer asserts that these additional benefits are necessary to continue his operations during a strike. To resolve these conflicting views upon an important question in the administration of the National Labor Relations Act, we brought the case here. 371 U.S. 810, 83 S.Ct. 48, 9 L.Ed.2d 53.

Erie Resistor Corporation and Local 613 of the International Union of Electrical Radio and Machine Workers were bound by a collective bargaining agreement which was due to expire on March 31, 1959. In January 1959, both parties met to negotiate new terms but, after extensive bargaining, they were unable to reach agreement. Upon expiration of the contract, the union, in support of its contract demands, called a strike which was joined by all of the 478 employees in the unit.2

The company, under intense competition and subject to insistent demands from its customers to maintain deliv- eries, decided to continue production operations. Transferring clerks, engineers and other nonunit employees to production jobs, the company managed to keep production at about 15% to 30% of normal during the month of April. On May 3, however, the company notified the union members that it intended to begin hiring replacements and that strikers would retain their jobs until replaced. The plant was located in an area classified by the United States Department of Labor as one of severe unemployment and the company had in fact received applications for employment as early as a week or two after the strike began.

Replacements were told that they would not be laid off or discharged at the end of the strike. To implement that assurance, particularly in view of the 450 employees already laid off on March 31, the company notified the union that it intended to accord the replacements some form of super-seniority. At regular bargaining sessions between the company and union, the union made it clear that, in its view, no matter what form the super-seniority plan might take, it would necessarily work an illegal discrimination against the strikers. As negotiations advanced on other issues, it became evident that super-seniority was fast becoming the focal point of disagreement. On May 28, the company informed the union that it had decided to award 20 years'3 additional seniority both to replacements and to strikers who returned to work, which would be available only for credit against future layoffs and which could not be used for other employee benefits based on years of service. The strikers, at a union meeting the next day, unanimously resolved to continue striking now in protest against the proposed plan as well.

The company made its first official announcement of the super-seniority plan on June 10, and by June 14, 34 new employees, 47 employees recalled from layoff status and 23 returning strikers had accepted production jobs. The union, now under great pressure, offered to give up some of its contract demands if the company would abandon super-seniority or go to arbitration on the question, but the company refused. In the following week, 64 strikers returned to work and 21 replacements took jobs, bringing the total to 102 replacements and recalled workers and 87 returned strikers. When the number of returning strikers went up to 125 during the following week, the union capitulated. A new labor agreement on the remaining economic issues was executed on July 17, and an accompanying settlement agreement was signed providing that the company's replacement and job assurance policy should be resolved by the National Labor Relations Board and the federal courts but was to remain in effect pending final disposition.

Following the strike's termination, the company reinstated those strikers whose jobs had not been filled (all but 129 were returned to their jobs). At about the same time, the union received some 173 resignations from membership. By September of 1959, the production unit work force had reached a high of 442 employees, but by May of 1960, the work force had gradually slipped back to 240. Many employees laid off during this cut back period were reinstated strikers whose seniority was insufficient to retain their jobs as a consequence of the company's super-seniority policy.

The union filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that awarding super-seniority during the course of the strike constituted an unfair labor practice and that the subsequent layoff of the recalled strikers pursuant to such a plan was unlawful. The Trial Examiner found that the policy was promulgated for legitimate economic reasons,4 not for illegal or discriminatory purposes, and recommended that the union's complaint be dismissed. The Board could not agree with the Trial Examiner's conclusion that specific evidence of subjective intent to discriminate against the union was necessary to finding that super-seniority granted during a strike is an unfair labor practice. Its consistent view, the Board said, had always been that super-seniority, in circumstances such as these, was an unfair labor practice. The Board rejected the argument that super-seniority granted during a strike is a legitimate corollary of the employer's right of replacement under National Labor Relations Board v. Mackay Radio & Tel. Co., 304 U.S. 333, 58 S.Ct. 904, 82 L.Ed. 1381, and detailed at some length the factors which to it indicated that 'superseniority is a form of discrimination extending far beyond the employer's right of replacement sanctioned by Mackay, and is, moreover, in direct conflict with the express provisions of the Act prohibiting discrimination.' Having put aside Mackay, the Board went on to deny 'that specific evidence of Respondent's discriminatory motivation is required to establish the alleged violations of the Act,' relying upon Radio Officers Union of Commercial Telegraphers Union, A.F.L. v. National Labor Relations Board, 347 U.S. 17, 74 S.Ct. 323, 98 L.Ed. 455; Republic Aviation Corp. v. National Labor Relations Board, 324 U.S. 793, 65 S.Ct. 982, 89 L.Ed. 1372, and Local 357, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America v. National Labor Relations Board, 365 U.S. 667, 81 S.Ct. 835, 6 L.Ed.2d 11. Moreover, in the Board's judgment, the employer's insistence that its overriding purpose in granting super-seniority was to keep its plant open and that business necessity justified its conduct was unacceptable since 'to excuse such conduct would greatly diminish, if not destroy, the right to strike guaranteed by the Act, and would run directly counter to the guarantees of Sections 8(a)(1) and (3) that employees shall not be discriminated against for engaging in protected concerted activities.'5 Accordingly, the Board declined to make findings as to the specific motivation of the plan or its business necessity in the circumstances here.

The Court of Appeals rejected as unsupportable the rationale of the Board that a preferential seniority policy is illegal however motivated.

'We are of the opinion that inherent in the right of an employer to replace strikers during a strike is the concomitant right to adopt a preferential seniority policy which will assure the replacements some form of tenure, provided the policy is adopted SOLELY to protect and continue the business of the employer. We find nothing in the Act which proscribes such a policy. Whether the policy adopted by the Company in the instant case was illegally motivated we do not decide. The question is one of fact for decision by the Board.' 303 F.2d, at 364.

It consequently denied the Board's petition for enforcement and remanded the case for further findings.

We think the Court of Appeals erred in hold that, in the absence of a finding of specific illegal intent, a legitimate business purpose is always a defense to an unfair labor practice charge. Cases in this Court dealing with unfair labor practices have recognized the relevance and importance of showing the employer's intent or motive to discriminate or to interfere with union rights. But specific evidence of such subjective intent is 'not an indispensable element of proof of violation.' Radio Officers Union of Commercial Telegraphers Union,A.F.L. v. National Labor Relations Board, 347 U.S. 17, 44, 74 S.Ct. 323, 98 L.Ed. 455. 'Some conduct may by its very nature contain the implications of the required intent; the natural foreseeable consequences of certain action may warrant the inference. * * * The existence of discrimination may at times be inferred by the Board, for 'it is permissible to draw on experience in factual inquiries." Local 357, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America v. National Labor Relations Board, 365 U.S. 667, 675, 81 S.Ct. 835, 839, 6 L.Ed.2d 11.


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