CRS Annotated Constitution

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Federal Versus State Labor Laws.—One group of cases, which has caused the Court much difficulty over the years, concerns the effect of federal labor laws on state power to govern labor–management relations. Although the Court some time ago reached a settled rule, changes in membership on the Court re–opened the issue and modified the rules.

With the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act and subsequent amendments, Congress declared a national policy in labor– management relations and established the NLRB to carry out that policy.1063 It became the Supreme Court’s responsibility to determine what role state law on labor–management relations was to play. At first, the Court applied a test of determination whether the state regulation was in direct conflict with the national regulatory scheme. Thus, in one early case, the Court held that an order by a state board which commanded a union to desist from mass picketing of a factory and from assorted personal threats was not in conflict with the national law that had not been invoked and[p.255]that did not touch on some of the union conduct in question.1064 A “cease and desist” order of a state board implementing a state provision making it an unfair labor practice for employees to conduct a slowdown or to otherwise interfere with production while on the job was found not to conflict with federal law,1065 while another order of the board was also sustained in its prohibition of the discharge of an employee under a maintenance–of–membership clause inserted in a contract under pressure from the War Labor Board and which violated state law.1066

On the other hand, a state statute requiring business agents of unions operating in the State to file annual reports and to pay an annual fee of one dollar was voided as in conflict with federal law.1067 And state statutes providing for mediation and outlawing public utility strikes were similarly voided as being in specific conflict with federal law.1068 A somewhat different approach was noted in several cases in which the Court held that the federal act had so occupied the field in certain areas as to preclude state regulation.1069 The latter approach was predominant through the 1950s as the Court voided state court action in enjoining1070 or awarding[p.256]damages1071 for peaceful picketing, in awarding of relief by damages or otherwise for conduct which constituted an unfair labor practice under federal law,1072 or in enforcing state antitrust laws so as to affect collective bargaining agreements1073 or to bar a strike as a restraint of trade,1074 even with regard to disputes over which the NLRB declined to assert jurisdiction because of the degree of effect on interstate commerce.1075

In San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon,1076 the Court enunciated the rule, based on its previous decade of adjudication. “When an activity is arguably subject to Sec. 7 or Sec. 8 of the Act, the States . . . must defer to the exclusive competence of the National Labor Relations Board if the danger of state interference with national policy is to be averted.”1077

For much of the period since Garmon, the dispute in the Court concerned the scope of the few exceptions permitted in the Garmon principle. First, when picketing is not wholly peaceful but is attended by intimidation, violence, and obstruction of the roads affording access to the struck establishment, state police powers have been held not disabled to deal with the conduct and narrowly–drawn injunctions directed against violence and mass picketing have been permitted1078 as well as damages to compensate for harm growing out of such activities.1079

A 1958 case permitted a successful state court suit for reinstatement and damages for lost pay because of a wrongful expulsion, leading to discharge from employment, based on a theory that the union constitution and by–laws constitute a contract between the union and the members the terms of which can be enforced by state courts without the danger of a conflict between state and fed[p.257]eral law.1080 The Court subsequently narrowed the interpretation of this ruling by holding in two cases that members who alleged union interference with their existing or prospective employment relations could not sue for damages but must file unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.1081 Gonzales was said to be limited to “purely internal union matters.”1082 Finally, Gonzales, was abandoned in a five–to–four decision in which the Court held that a person who alleged that his union had misinterpreted its constitution and its collective bargaining agreement with the individual’s employer in expelling him from the union and causing him to be discharged from his employment because he was late paying his dues, had to pursue his federal remedies.1083 While it was not likely that in Gonzales, a state court resolution of the scope of duty owed the member by the union would implicate principles of federal law, Justice Harlan wrote for the Court, state court resolution in this case involved an interpretation of the contract’s union security clause, a matter on which federal regulation is extensive.1084

One other exception has been based, like the violence cases, on the assumption that it concerns areas traditionally left to local law into which Congress would not want to intrude. In Linn v. Plant Guard Workers,1085 the Court permitted a state court adjudication of a defamation action arising out of a labor dispute. And in Letter Carriers v. Austin,1086 the Court held that federal law preempts state defamation laws in the context of labor disputes to the extent that the State seeks to make actionable defamatory statements in labor disputes published without knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard of truth or falsity.

However, a state tort action for the intentional infliction of emotional distress occasioned through an alleged campaign of personal abuse and harassment of a member of the union by the union and its officials was held not preempted by federal labor law. Federal law was not directed to the “outrageous conduct” alleged, and NLRB resolution of the dispute would neither touch upon the claim of emotional distress and physical injury nor award the plaintiff[p.258]any compensation. But state court jurisdiction, in order that there not be interference with the federal scheme, must be premised on tortious conduct either unrelated to employment discrimination or a function of the particularly abusive manner in which the discrimination is accomplished or threatened rather than a function of the actual or threatened discrimination itself.1087

A significant retrenchment of Garmon occurred in Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Carpenters,1088 in the context of state court assertion of jurisdiction over trespassory picketing. Objecting to the company’s use of nonunion work in one of its departments, the union picketed the store, using the company’s property, the lot area surrounding the store, instead of the public sidewalks, to walk on. After the union refused to move its pickets to the sidewalk, the company sought and obtained a state court order enjoining the picketing on company property. Depending upon the union motivation for the picketing, it was either arguably prohibited or arguably protected by federal law, the trespassory nature of the picketing being one factor the NLRB would have looked to in determining at least the protected nature of the conduct. The Court held, however, that under the circumstances, neither the arguably prohibited nor the arguably protected rationale of Garmon was sufficient to deprive the state court of jurisdiction.

First, as to conduct arguably prohibited by NLRA, the Court seemingly expanded the Garmon exception recognizing state court jurisdiction for conduct that touches interests “deeply rooted in local feeling”1089 in holding that where there exists “a significant state interest in protecting the citizens from the challenged conduct” and there exists “little risk of interference with the regulatory jurisdiction” of the NLRB, state law is not preempted. Here, there was obviously a significant state interest in protecting the company from trespass; the second, “critical inquiry” was whether the controversy presented to the state court was identical to or different from that which could have been presented to the Board. The Court concluded that the controversy was different. The Board would have been presented with determining the motivation of the picketing and the location of the picketing would have been irrele[p.259]vant; the motivation was irrelevant to the state court and the situs of the picketing was the sole inquiry. Thus, there was deemed to be no realistic risk of state interference with Board jurisdiction.1090

Second, in determining whether the picketing was protected, the Board would have been concerned with the situs of the picketing, since under federal labor laws the employer has no absolute right to prohibit union activity on his property. Preemption of state court jurisdiction was denied, nonetheless, in this case on two joined bases. One, preemption is not required in those cases in which the party who could have presented the protection issue to the Board has not done so and the other party to the dispute has no acceptable means of doing so. In this case, the union could have filed with the Board when the company demanded removal of the pickets, but did not, and the company could not file with the Board at all. Two, even if the matter is not presented to the Board, preemption is called for if there is a risk of erroneous state court adjudication of the protection issue that is unacceptable, so that one must look to the strength of the argument that the activity is protected. While the state court had to make an initial determination that the trespass was not protected under federal law, the same determination the Board would have made, in the instance of trespassory conduct, the risk of erroneous determination is small, because experience shows that a trespass is far more likely to be unprotected than protected.1091

Introduction of these two balancing tests into the Garmon rationale substantially complicates determining when state courts do not have jurisdiction and will no doubt occasion much more litigation in state courts than has previously existed.

Another series of cases involves not a Court–created exception to the Garmon rule but the applicability and interpretation of Sec. 301 of the Taft–Hartley Act,1092 which authorizes suits in federal, and state,1093 courts to enforce collective bargaining agreements. The Court has held that in enacting Sec. 301, Congress authorized actions based on conduct arguably subject to the NLRA, so that the Garmon preemption doctrine does not preclude judicial enforcement of duties and obligations which would otherwise be within the exclusive jurisdiction of the NLRB so long as those duties and obli[p.260]gations are embodied in a collective–bargaining agreement, perhaps as interpreted in an arbitration proceeding.1094

Here, too, the permissible role of state tort actions has been in great dispute. Generally, a state tort action as an alternative to a Sec. 301 arbitration or enforcement action is preempted if it is substantially dependent upon analysis of the terms of a collective– bargaining agreement.1095 Thus, a state damage action for the bad– faith handling of an insurance claim under a disability plan that was part of a collective–bargaining agreement was preempted because it involved interpretation of that agreement and because state enforcement would frustrate the policies of Sec. 301 favoring uniform federal–law interpretation of collective–bargaining agreements and favoring arbitration as a predicate to adjudication.1096

Finally, the Court has indicated that with regard to some situations, Congress has intended to leave the parties to a labor dispute free to engage in “self–help,” so that conduct not subject to federal law is nonetheless withdrawn from state control.1097 However, the NLRA is concerned primarily “with establishing an equitable process for determining terms and conditions of employment, and not with particular substantive terms of the bargain that is struck when the parties are negotiating from relatively equal positions,” so States are free to impose minimum labor standards.1098


1063 Throughout the ups–and–downs of federal labor–law preemption, it remains the rule that the Board remains preeminent and almost exclusive. See, e.g., Wisconsin Dept. of Industry v. Gould, Inc., 475 U.S. 282 (1986) (States may not supplement Board enforcement by debarring from state contracts persons or firms that have violated the NLRA); Golden Gate Transit Corp. v. City of Los Angeles, 475 U.S. 608 (1986) (City may not condition taxicab franchise on settlement of strike by set date, since this intrudes into collective–bargaining process protected by NLRA). On the other hand, the NLRA’s protection of associational rights is not so strong as to outweigh the Social Security Act’s policy permitting States to determine whether to award unemployment benefits to persons voluntarily unemployed as the result of a labor dispute. New York Telephone Co. v. New York Labor Dept., 440 U.S. 519 (1979); Ohio Bureau of Employment Services v. Hodory, 431 U.S. 471 (1977); Baker v. General Motors Corp., 478 U.S. 621 (1986).
1064 Allen–Bradley Local No. 1111 v. WERB, 315 U.S. 740 (1942).
1065 United Automobile Workers v. WERB, 336 U.S. 245 (1949) (overruled in Machinists & Aerospace Workers v. WERC, 427 U.S. 132 (1976)).
1066 Algoma Plywood Co. v. WERB, 336 U.S. 301 (1949).
1067 Hill v. Florida ex rel. Watson, 325 U.S. 538 (1945). More recently, the Court has held that Hill’s premise that the NLRA grants an unqualified right to select union officials has been removed by amendments prohibiting some convicted criminals from holding union office. Partly because the federal disqualification standard was itself dependent upon application of state law, the Court ruled that more stringent state disqualification provisions, also aimed at individuals who had been involved in racketeering and other criminal conduct, were not inconsistent with federal law. Brown v. Hotel Employees, 468 U.S. 491 (1984).
1068 United Automobile Workers v. O’Brien, 339 U.S. 454 (1950); Bus Employees v. WERB, 340 U.S. 383 (1951). See also Bus Employees v. Missouri, 374 U.S. 74 (1963).
1069 Weber v. Anheuser–Busch, Inc., 348 U.S. 468 (1955); Garner v. Teamsters Local 776, 346 U.S. 485 (1953); Bethlehem Steel Co. v. New York Employment Relations Board, 330 U.S. 767 (1947). Of course, where Congress clearly specifies, the Court has had no difficulty. Thus, in the NLRA, Congress provided, 29 U.S.C. Sec. 164 (b), that state laws on the subject could override the federal law on union security arrangements and the Court sustained those laws. Lincoln Federal Labor Union v. Northwestern Iron & Metal Co., 335 U.S. 525 (1949); AFL v. American Sash & Door Co., 335 U.S. 538 (1949). When Congress in the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. Sec. 152 , Eleventh, provided that the federal law on union security was to override contrary state laws, the Court sustained that determination. Railway Employees’ Department v. Hanson, 351 U.S. 225 (1956). The Court has held that state courts may adjudicate questions relating to the permissibility of particular types of union security arrangements under state law even though the issue involves as well an interpretation of federal law., Retail Clerks International Association v. Schermerhorn, 375 U.S. 96 (1963).

Supplement: [P. 255, add to n.1069, immediately following Bethlehem Steel:]

See also Livadas v. Bradshaw, 512 U.S. 107 (1994) (finding preempted because it stood as an obstacle to the achievement of the purposes of NLRA a practice of a state labor commissioner).

1070 Garner v. Teamsters Local 776, 346 U.S. 485 (1953); United Mine Workers v. Arkansas Flooring Co., 351 U.S. 62 (1956); Meat Cutters v. Fairlawn Meats, 353 U.S. 20 (1957); Construction Laborers v. Curry, 371 U.S. 542 (1963).
1071 San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 353 U.S. 26 (1957).
1072 Guss v. Utah Labor Board, 353 U.S. 1 (1957).
1073 Teamsters Union v. Oliver, 358 U.S. 283 (1959).
1074 Weber v. Anheuser–Busch, Inc., 348 U.S. 468 (1955).
1075 Guss v. Utah Labor Board, 353 U.S. 1 (1957). The “no– man’s land” thus created by the difference between the reach of Congress’ commerce power and the NLRB’s finite resources was closed by 73 Stat. 541 , 29 U.S.C. Sec. 164 (c), which authorized the States to assume jurisdiction over disputes which the Board had indicated through promulgation of jurisdictional standards that it would not treat.
1076 359 U.S. 236 (1959).
1077 Id., 245. The rule is followed in, e.g., Radio & Television Technicians v. Broadcast Service of Mobile, 380 U.S. 255 (1965); Hattiesburg Building & Trades Council v. Broome, 377 U.S. 126 (1964); Longshoremen Local 1416 v. Ariadne Shipping Co., 397 U.S. 195 (1970); Amalgamated Assn. of Street, Electric Railway & Motor Coach Employees v. Lockridge, 403 U.S. 274 (1971). Cf. Nash v. Florida Industrial Comm., 389 U.S. 235 (1967).
1078 United Automobile Workers v. WERB, 351 U.S. 266 (1956); Youngdahl v. Rainfair, 355 U.S. 131 (1957).
1079 United Automobile Workers v. Russell, 356 U.S. 634 (1958); United Construction Workers v. Laburnum Construction Corp., 347 U.S. 656 (1954).
1080 International Assn. of Machinists v. Gonzales, 356 U.S. 617 (1958).
1081 Journeymen Local 100 v. Borden, 373 U.S. 690 (1963); Iron Workers Local 207 v. Perko, 373 U.S. 701 (1963). Applying Perko, the Court held that a state court action by a supervisor alleging union interference with his contractual relationship with his employer is preempted by the NLRA. Local 926, Intl. Union of Operating Engineers v. Jones, 460 U.S. 669 (1983).
1082 373 U.S., 697; 373 U.S., 705.
1083 Amalgamated Assn. of Street, Electric Railway & Motor Coach Employees v. Lockridge, 403 U.S. 274 (1971).
1084 Id., 296.
1085 383 U.S. 53 (1966).
1086 418 U.S. 264 (1974).
1087 Farmer v. Carpenters, 430 U.S. 290 (1977). Following this case, the Court held that a state court action for misrepresentation and breach of contract, brought by replacement workers promised permanent employment when hired during a strike, was not preempted. The action for breach of contract by replacement workers having no remedies under the NLRA was found to be deeply rooted in local law and of only peripheral concern under the Act. Belknap, Inc. v. Hale, 463 U.S. 491 (1983). See also Intl. Longshoremen’s Assn. v. Davis, 476 U.S. 380 (1986).
1088 436 U.S. 180 (1978).
1089 San Diego Bldg Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236, 244 (1959).
1090 Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Carpenters, 436 U.S. 180, 190–198 (1978).
1091 Id., 199–207.
1092 61 Stat. 156 (1947), 29 U.S.C. Sec. 185 (a).
1093 Charles Dowd Box Co. v. Courtney, 368 U.S. 502 (1962). The state courts must, however, apply federal law. Local 174, Teamsters v. Lucas Flour Co., 369 U.S. 95 (1962).
1094 Smith v. Evening News Assn., 371 U.S. 195 (1962); Humphrey v. Moore, 375 U.S. 335 (1964); Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171 (1967).
1095 See the analysis in Lingle v. Norge Div. of Magic Chef, Inc., 486 U.S. 399 (1988) (state tort action for retaliatory discharge for exercising rights under a state workers’ compensation law is not preempted by Sec. 301, there being no required interpretation of a collective–bargaining agreement).
1096 Allis–Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202 (1985). See also Intl. Brotherhood of Electric Workers v. Hechler, 481 U.S. 851 (1987) (state–law claim that union breached duty to furnish employee a reasonably safe workplace preempted); United Steelworkers of America v. Rawson, 495 U.S. 362 (1990) (state–law claim that union was negligent in inspecting a mine, the duty to inspect being created by the collective– bargaining agreement preempted).
1097 Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Jacksonville Terminal Co., 394 U.S. 369 (1969); Machinists & Aerospace Workers v. WERC, 427 U.S. 132 (1976); Golden Gate Transit Corp. v. City of Los Angeles, 475 U.S. 608 (1986). And, cf New York Telephone Co. v. New York State Dept. of Labor, 440 U.S. 519 (1979).
1098 Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Massachusetts, 471 U.S. 724 (1985) (upholding a state requirement that health–care plans, including those resulting from collective bargaining, provide minimum benefits for mental–health care).
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