National Labor Relations Board v. City Disposal Systems Inc

Citation465 U.S. 822,104 S.Ct. 1505,79 L.Ed.2d 839
Decision Date21 March 1984
Docket NumberNo. 82-960,82-960
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act provides that employees shall have the right to join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively, and "to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection." The collective-bargaining agreement between respondent and the union representing its truckdrivers provides that respondent shall not require employees to operate any vehicle that is not in safe operating condition, and that "[i]t shall not be a violation of the Agreement where employees refuse to operate such equipment unless such refusal is unjustified." One of respondent's employees (James Brown) was discharged when he refused to drive a truck that he honestly and reasonably believed to be unsafe because of faulty brakes. After the union declined to process Brown's grievance under the bargaining agreement, he filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), challenging his discharge. An Administrative Law Judge concluded that, even though Brown acted alone in asserting a contractual right, his refusal to operate the truck constituted "concerted activit[y]" protected by § 7, and that respondent had therefore committed an unfair labor practice in discharging him. The NLRB adopted the Administrative Law Judge's findings and conclusions and ordered Brown's reinstatement with backpay, applying its longstanding "Interboro doctrine," which was based on the conclusions that an individual's reasonable and honest assertion of a right contained in a collective-bargaining agreement is an extension of the concerted action that produced the agreement, and that the assertion of such a right affects the rights of all employees covered by the agreement. However, the Court of Appeals denied enforcement of the NLRB's order, finding that Brown's refusal to drive the truck was an action taken solely on his own behalf and thus was not a concerted activity within § 7's meaning.


1. The NLRB's Interboro doctrine is a reasonable interpretation of the Act. Pp. 829-839.

(a) The language of § 7 does not confine itself to situations where two or more employees are working together at the same time and the same place toward a common goal, or to situations where a lone employee intends to induce group activity or acts as a representative of at least one other employee. The invocation of a right rooted in a collective-bargaining agreement is unquestionably an integral part of the process that gave rise to the agreement. The Interboro doctrine is entirely consistent with the Act's purposes, which include the encouragement of collective bargaining and other practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes arising out of differences as to wages, hours, or other working conditions. Moreover, § 7's general history reveals no inconsistency between the Interboro doctrine and congressional intent to equalize the bargaining power of management and labor. As long as the employee's statement or action is based on a reasonable and honest belief that he is being, or has been, asked to perform a task that he is not required to perform under his collective-bargaining agreement, and the statement or action is reasonably directed toward the enforcement of a collectively bargained right, there is no justification for overturning the NLRB's judgment that the employee is engaged in concerted activity. Pp. 830-837.

(b) The fact that an activity is concerted does not necessarily mean that an employee may engage in the activity with impunity. If an employee engages in concerted activity in a manner that is overly abusive or violative of his collective-bargaining agreement, his actions would be unprotected. P. 837.

(c) There is no merit to the argument that the Interboro doctrine undermines the arbitration process by providing employees with the possibility of provoking a discharge and then filing an unfair labor practice claim. An employee who purposefully follows this route would run the risk that the NLRB would find his actions concerted but nonetheless unprotected. More importantly, to the extent that the factual issues raised in an unfair labor practice action have been, or can be, addressed through the grievance process, the NLRB may defer to that process. Pp. 837-839.

2. The NLRB reasonably concluded that Brown's honest and reasonable assertion of his right to be free of the obligation to drive unsafe trucks, even though he did not explicitly refer to the collective-bargaining agreement when he refused to drive the truck, constituted concerted activity within the meaning of § 7. As long as the nature of the employee's complaint is reasonably clear to the person to whom it is communicated, and the complaint in fact refers to a reasonably perceived violation of the collective-bargaining agreement, the complaining employee is engaged in the process of enforcing that agreement. Respondent's argument that the NLRB erred in finding Brown's action concerted based only on Brown's reasonable and honest belief that the truck was unsafe, because the bargaining agreement required that the truck be objectively unsafe, confuses the threshold question whether Brown's conduct was concerted with the ultimate question whether that conduct was protected. The latter question should be considered on remand. Pp. 839-841.

683 F.2d 1005, reversed and remanded.

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

Robert P. Ufer, Detroit, Mich., for respondent.

Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

James Brown, a truck driver employed by respondent, was discharged when he refused to drive a truck that he honestly and reasonably believed to be unsafe because of faulty brakes. Article XXI of the collective-bargaining agreement between respondent and Local 247 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America, which covered Brown, provides:

"[t]he Employer shall not require employees to take out on the streets or highways any vehicle that is not in safe operating condition or equipped with safety appli- ances prescribed by law. It shall not be a violation of the Agreement where employees refuse to operate such equipment unless such refusal is unjustified." 1

The question to be decided is whether Brown's honest and reasonable assertion of his right to be free of the obligation to drive unsafe trucks constituted "concerted activit[y]" within the meaning of § 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Act), 29 U.S.C. § 157.2 The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) held that Brown's refusal was concerted activity within § 7, and that his discharge was, therefore, an unfair labor practice under § 8(a)(1) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 158(a).3 256 N.L.R.B. 451 (1981). The Court of Appeals disagreed and declined enforcement. 683 F.2d 1005 (CA6 1982). At least three other Courts of Appeals, however, have accepted the Board's interpretation of "concerted activities" as including the assertion by an individual employee of a right grounded in a collective-bargaining agreement.4 We granted certio- rari to resolve the conflict, --- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 1496, 75 L.Ed.2d 928 (1983) and now reverse.


The facts are not in dispute in the current posture of this case.5 Respondent, City Disposal System, Inc. (City Disposal), hauls garbage for the City of Detroit. Under the collective-bargaining agreement with Local Union No. 247, respondent's truck drivers haul garbage from Detroit to a land fill about 37 miles away. Each driver is assigned to operate a particular truck, which he or she operates each day of work, unless that truck is in disrepair.

James Brown was assigned to truck No. 245. On Saturday, May 12, 1979, Brown observed that a fellow driver had difficulty with the brakes of another truck, truck No. 244. As a result of the brake problem, truck No. 244 nearly collided with Brown's truck. After unloading their garbage at the land fill, Brown and the driver of truck No. 244 brought No. 244 to respondent's truck-repair facility, where they were told that the brakes would be repaired either over the weekend or in the morning of Monday, May 14.

Early in the morning of Monday, May 14, while transporting a load of garbage to the land fill, Brown experienced difficulty with one of the wheels of his own truck—No. 245—and brought that truck in for repair. At the repair facility Brown was told that, because of a backlog at the facility, No. 245 could not be repaired that day. Brown reported the situation to his supervisor, Otto Jasmund, who ordered Brown to punch out and go home. Before Brown could leave, however, Jasmund changed his mind and asked Brown to drive truck No. 244 instead. Brown refused, explaining that "there's something wrong with that truck. . . . [S]omething was wrong with the brakes . . . there was a grease seal or something leaking causing it to be affecting the brakes." Brown did not, however, explicitly refer to Article XXI of the collective-bargaining agreement or to the agreement in general. In response to Brown's refusal to drive truck No. 244, Jasmund angrily told Brown to go home. At that point, an argument ensued and Robert Madary, another supervisor, intervened, repeating Jasmund's request that Brown drive truck No. 244. Again, Brown refused, explaining that No. 244 "has got problems and I don't want to drive it." Madary replied that half the trucks had problems and that if respondent tried to fix all of them it would be unable to do business. He went on to tell Brown that "[w]e've got all this garbage out here to haul and you tell me about you don't want to drive." Brown responded, "Bob, what you going to do, put the garbage ahead of the safety of the men?" Finally, Madary...

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