Order of Railroad Telegraphers v. Railway Express Agency

Decision Date28 February 1944
Docket NumberNo. 343,343
Citation64 S.Ct. 582,321 U.S. 342,88 L.Ed. 788
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. William G. McRae, of Atlanta, Ga., for petitioner.

Mr. Blair Foster, of Atlanta, Ga., for respondent.

Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This hoary litigation presents the question whether a carrier by contracts with individual employees made in 1930 could supersede or expand terms of an agreement collectively bargained between the employer and the union in 1917, in view of the provisions of the Railway Labor Act of 1926, 45 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq., which was applicable when the controversy arose.

Petitioner was a union designated to represent certain crafts and classes of employees of carriers by railroad. Employees here involved are agents at stations on the Seaboard Airline Railroad, who primarily are employees of the railway and secondarily of the railway express agency; they receive compensation from each employer. For some years they were represented by the union in bargaining collective agreements with predecessor express companies. The last was executed in 1917 and was assumed by this respondent March 1, 1929.

In 1930, the Express Company began to handle new business consisting mainly of carload shipments of perishables which formerly had been handled by the railroad company as freight. The Express Company thought the change in volume and character of its shipments warranted an adjustment of rates of pay applicable to certain of the agencies where the shipments originated. The Railway Labor Act of 1926, then in effect, provided that carriers and representatives of employees should give at least thirty days written notice of an intended change affecting rates of pay, rules, or working conditions, and should agree upon time and place of conference.1 The collective agreement also provided that no change should be made in its terms 'until after 30 days notice in writing has been given.' The Express Company gave no such notice to the union signatory to the 1917 collective agreement. Instead, it gave individual notices to the agents that their compensation for such shipments would be $5.00 per car, the notices on one division going out on March 25, and those on another, April 8, and all becoming effective April 10, 1930. The agents involved, after various objections and negotiations, individually accepted the rate, although there is controversy as to whether their acceptance was wholly voluntary. For purposes of decision, however, we assume voluntary assent and that but for provisions of the Railway Labor Act valid individual contracts resulted.

The local chairman of the union protested and insisted that collective bargaining must control the compensation of the agents. The Express Company declined to accede to the claims, and the union's claim that the agents must be compensated under the collective agreement remained unadjusted. Attempts to adjust were renewed by the general chairman, but no voluntary Board of Adjustment was agreed upon as provided under § 3 of the 1926 Act.2 The statutory Board was created in 1934,3 the Company refused to join the union in a petition, and the union on October 8, 1935, gave notice of its intention to refer the dispute to the Board. The Company challenged the Board's jurisdiction, a hearing was had, the bi-partisan board deadlocked, a referee was named, and in 1936 objections to jurisdiction were overruled and a hearing on the merits was directed. After the hearing the Board again deadlocked, again a referee was chosen, and on December 15, 1937, an award sustaining the claims that the agents were entitled to the compensation provided by the collectively bargained agreement was made, accompanied by a holding that the individual contracts were ineffective. The Company failed to comply with the award and in December 1939, after almost two years, the present action was commenced in the United States District Court. The district courts are given jurisdiction to enforce awards of the Board, its orders and findings being declared to be 'prima facie evidence of the facts therein stated.' Laws 1934, c. 691, § 3, First (p), 48 Stat. 1192, 45 U.S.C.A. § 153, First (p). In June 1942 decision was rendered by which the district court enforced the Adjustment Board's award. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed upon the ground that the collective agreement had been superseded validly by the individual contracts and upon the further ground that the claims under collective agreements were barred by the statute of limitations.4 These questions are unsettled ones important to the administration of the current Railway Labor Act, and we granted certiorari.5

1. The Company contends that special voluntary individual contracts as to rates of pay, rules, and conditions of employment may validly be made, notwithstanding the existence of a collective agreement, and that the terms of the individual agreements supersede those of the collectively bargained one. If this were true, statutes requiring collective bargaining would have little substance, for what was made collectively could be promptly unmade individually. It is said, however, that in this case the agreements affect relatively few agents and that those are specially and uniquely situated. This apparently is true, for the application of the collective agreement results in an award of some $40,000 to one agent over the period and less than $2,000 to all of the others, and most of the awards are for a few hundred dollars.

Collective bargaining was not defined by the statute which provided for it, but it generally has been considered to absorb and give statutory approval to the philosophy of bargaining as worked out in the labor movement in the United States.6 From the first the position of labor with reference to the wage structure of an industry has been much like that of the carriers about rate structures.7 It is insisted that exceptional situations often have an importance to the whole because they introduce competitions and discriminations that are upsetting to the entire structure. Hence effective collective bargaining has been generally conceded to include the right of the representatives of the unit to be consulted and to bargain about the exceptional as well as the routine rates, rules, and working conditions. Collective bargains need not and do not always settle or embrace every exception. It may be agreed that particular situations are reserved for individual contracting, either completely or within prescribed limits. Had this proposed rate of pay been submitted to the collective bargaining process it might have been settled thereby or might have resulted in an agreement that the company should be free to negotiate with the agents severally. But the Company did not observe the right of the representatives of the whole unit to be notified and dealt with concerning a matter which from an employee's point of view may not be exceptional or which may provide a leverage for taking away other...

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