Wirtz v. Local 153, Glass Bottle Blowers Association, 57

Decision Date15 January 1968
Docket NumberNo. 57,57
Citation88 S.Ct. 643,19 L.Ed.2d 705,389 U.S. 463
PartiesW. Willard WIRTZ, Secretary of Labor, Petitioner, v. LOCAL 153, GLASS BOTTLE BLOWERS ASSOCIATION, etc
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Louis F. Claiborne, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Albert K. Plone, Camden, N.J., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, the Secretary of Labor, filed this action in the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania seeking a judgment declaring void the election of officers conducted by respondent Local Union on October 18, 1963, and directing that a new election be conducted under the Secretary's supervision.

Section 402(b) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, 29 U.S.C. § 482(b), authorizes the Secretary of Labor, upon complaint by a union member who has exhausted his internal union remedies, to file the suit when an investigation of the complaint gives the Secretary probable cause to believe that the union election was not conducted in compliance with the standards prescribed in § 401 of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 481. If the court finds that a violation of § 401 occurred which 'may have affected the outcome of an election,' it 'shall declare the election, if any, to be void and direct the conduct of a new election under supervision of the Secretary.'1 The alleged illegality in the election was a violation of the provision of § 401(e), 29 U.S.C. § 481(e), that in a union election subject to the Act every union member 'in good standing shall be eligible to be a condidate and to hold office (subject to * * * reasonable qualifications uniformly imposed) * * *.'

A Local bylaw provided that union members had to have attended 75% of the Local's regular meetings in the two years preceding the election to be eligible to stand for office.2 The union member whose complaint invoked the Secretary's investigation had not been allowed to stand for President at the 1963 election because he had attended only 17 of the 24 regular monthly meetings, one short of the requisite 75%; under the bylaws, working on the night shift was the only excusable absence and none of his absences was for this reason.

The District Court held that the meeting-attendance requirement was an unreasonable restriction upon the eligibility of union members to be candidates for office and therefore violated § 401(e),3 but dismissed the suit on the ground that it was not established that the violation 'may have affected the outcome' of the election. 244 F.Supp. 745. The Secretary appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The appeal was pending when the Local conducted its next regular biennial election in October 1965. The Court of Appeals held that the Secretary's challenge to the 1963 election was mooted by the 1965 election, and therefore vacated the District Court judgment with the direction to dismiss the case as moot. In consequence, the court did not reach the merits of the question whether the unlawful meeting-attendance qualification may have affected the outcome of the 1963 election. 372 F.2d 86. 4 Because the question whether the intervening election mooted the Secretary's action is important in the administration of the LMRDA, we granted certiorari, 387 U.S. 904, 87 S.Ct. 1686, 18 L.Ed.2d 621, and set the case for oral argument with No. 58, Wirtz v. Local Union No. 125, Laborers' Int'l Union, 389 U.S. 477, 88 S.Ct. 639, 19 L.Ed.2d 716. We reverse.

The holding of the Court of Appeals did not rest on any explicit statutory provision that on the happening of another unsupervised election the Secretary's cause of action should be deemed to have 'ceased to exist.' People of State of California v. San Pablo & T.R. Co., 149 U.S. 308, 313, 13 S.Ct. 876, 878, 37 L.Ed. 747.5 Indeed a literal reading of § 402(b) would more reason- ably compel the contrary conclusion. For no exceptions are admitted by the unambiguous wording that when 'the violation of § 401 may have affected the outcome of an election, the court shall declare the election, * * * if any, to be void and direct the conduct of a new election under supervision of the Secretary. * * *' (Emphasis supplied.)

Nonetheless, this does not end the inquiry. We have cautioned against a literal reading of congressional labor legislation; such legislation is often the product of conflict and compromise between strongly held and opposed views, and its proper construction frequently requires consideration of its wording against the background of its legislative history and in the light of the general objectives Congress sought to achieve. See, e.g., National Woodwork Mfrs. Assn. v. NLRB, 386 U.S. 612, 619, 87 S.Ct. 1250, 1255, 18 L.Ed.2d 357. The LMRDA is no exception.6

A reading of the legislative history of the LMRDA, and of Title IV in particular, reveals nothing to indicate any consideration of the possibility that another election might intervene before a final judicial decision of the Secretary's challenge to a particular election. The only reasonable inference is that the possibility did not occur to the Congress.7 We turn therefore to the question whether, in light of the objectives Congress sought to achieve, the statute may properly be construed to terminate the Secretary's cause of action upon the fortuitous event of another unsupervised election before final judicial decision of the suit.

The LMRDA has seven subdivisions dealing with various facets both of internal union affairs and of labor-management relations. The enactment of the statute was preceded by extensive congressional inquiries upon which Congress based the findings, purposes, and policy expressed in § 2 of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 401. 8 Of special significance in this case are the findings that 'in the public interest' remedial legislation was necessary to further the objective 'that labor organizations * * * and their officials adhere to the highest standards of responsibility and ethical conduct in administering the affairs of their organizations * * *,' 29 U.S.C. § 401(a), this because Congress found, 'from recent investigations in the labor and management fields, that there have been a number of instances of breach of trust, corruption, disregard of the rights of individual employees, and other failures to observe high standards of responsibility and ethical conduct * * *' requiring 'supplementary legislation that will afford necessary protection of the rights and interests of employees and the public generally as they relate to the activities of labor organizations * * * and their officers and representatives.' 29 U.S.C. § 401(b).

Title IV's special function in furthering the overall goals of the LMRDA is to insure 'free and democratic' elections.9 The legislative history shows that Congress weighed how best to legislate against revealed abuses in union elections without departing needlessly from its long-standing policy against unnecessary governmental intrusion into internal union affairs.10 The extensive and vigorous debate over Title IV manifested a conflict over the extent to which governmental intervention in this most crucial aspect of internal union affairs was necessary or desirable. In the end there emerged a 'general congressional policy to allow unions great latitude in resolving their own internal controversies, and, where that fails, to utilize the agencies of Government most familiar with union problems to aid in bringing about a settlement through discussion before resort to the courts.' Calhoon v. Harvey, 379 U.S. 134, 140, 85 S.Ct. 292, 296, 13 L.Ed.2d 190.

But the freedom allowed unions to run their own elections was reserved for those elections which conform to the democratic principles written into § 401. International union elections must be held not less often than once every five years and local union elections not less often than once every three years. Elections must be by secret ballot among the members in good standing except that international unions may elect their officers at a convention of delegates chosen by secret ballot. 29 U.S.C. § 481(a), (b). Specific provisions insure equality of treatment in the mailing of campaign literature; require adequate safeguards to insure a fair election, including the right of any candidate to have observers at the polls and at the counting of ballots; guarantee a 'reasonable opportunity' for the nomination of candidates, the right to vote without fear of reprisal, and, pertinent to the case before us, the right of every member in good standing to be a candidate, subject to 'reasonable qualifications uniformly imposed.' 29 U.S.C. §§ 481(c), (e).

Even when an election violates these standards, the stated commitment is to postpone governmental intervention until the union is afforded the opportunity to redress the violation. This is the effect of the requirement that a complaining union member must first exhaust his internal union remedies before invoking the aid of the Secretary. 29 U.S.C. § 482(a). And if the union denies the member relief and he makes a timely complaint to the Secretary, the Secretary may not initiate an action until his own investigation confirms that a violation of § 401 probably infected the challenged election. Moreover, the Secretary may attempt to settle the matter without any lawsuit; the objective is not a lawsuit but to 'aid in bringing about a settlement through discussion before resort to the courts.' Chalhoon v. Harvey, supra. And if the Secretary must finally initiate an action, the election is presumed valid until the court has adjudged it invalid. 29 U.S.C. § 482(a). Congress has explicitly told us that these provisions were designed to preserve a 'maximum amount of independence and self-government by giving every inter- national union the opportunity to correct improper local elections.' S.Rep.No.187, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., 21, 1 Leg.Hist. 417.

But it is incorrect to read these provisions circumscribing the time and basis...

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