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WIRTZ v. LOCAL 153

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: January 15, 1968.

WIRTZ, SECRETARY OF LABOR
v.
LOCAL 153, GLASS BOTTLE BLOWERS ASSOCIATION OF THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA, AFL-CIO

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT.

Warren, Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Fortas; Marshall took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Brennan

[ 389 U.S. Page 464]

 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."*fn1 The alleged illegality in the

[ 389 U.S. Page 465]

     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 candidate and to hold office (subject to . . . reasonable qualifications uniformly imposed) . . . ."

[ 389 U.S. Page 466]

     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.*fn2 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),*fn3 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

[ 389 U.S. Page 467]

     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.*fn4 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, and set the case for oral argument with No. 58, Wirtz v. Local 125, Laborers' Int'l Union, post, p. 477. 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." California v. San Pablo & T. R. Co., 149 U.S. 308, 313.*fn5 Indeed a literal reading of § 402 (b) would more reasonably

[ 389 U.S. Page 468]

     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. The LMRDA is no exception.*fn6

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.*fn7 We turn therefore to the question

[ 389 U.S. Page 469]

     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.*fn8 Of special significance in this case are the findings that "in the public interest" remedial legislation was necessary to

[ 389 U.S. Page 470]

     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.*fn9 The legislative history shows that Congress

[ 389 U.S. Page 471]

     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.*fn10 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.

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

[ 389 U.S. Page 472]

     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." Calhoon 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 international

[ 389 U.S. Page 473]

     union the opportunity to correct improper local elections." S. Rep. No. 187, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., 21, I Leg. Hist. 417.

But it is incorrect to read these provisions circumscribing the time and basis for the Secretary's intervention as somehow conditioning his right to relief once that intervention has been properly invoked. Such a construction would ignore the fact that Congress, although committed to minimal intervention, was obviously equally committed to making that intervention, once warranted, effective in carrying out the basic aim of Title IV.*fn11 Congress deliberately gave exclusive enforcement authority to the Secretary, having "decided to utilize the special knowledge and discretion of the Secretary of Labor in order best to serve the public interest." Calhoon v. Harvey, supra. In so doing, Congress rejected other proposals, among them plans that would have authorized suits by complaining members in their own right.*fn12 And Congress unequivocally declared that

[ 389 U.S. Page 474]

     once the Secretary establishes in court that a violation of § 401 may have affected the outcome of the challenged election, "the court shall declare the election . . . to be void and direct the conduct of a new election under supervision of the Secretary . . . ." 29 U. S. C. § 482 (c). (Emphasis supplied.)

We cannot agree that this statutory scheme is satisfied by the happenstance intervention of an unsupervised election. The notion that the unlawfulness infecting the challenged election should be considered as washed away by the following election disregards Congress' evident conclusion that only a supervised election could offer assurance that the officers who achieved office as beneficiaries of violations of the Act would not by some means perpetuate their unlawful control in the succeeding election. That conclusion was reached in light of the abuses surfaced by the extensive congressional inquiry showing how incumbents' use of their inherent advantage over potential rank and file challengers established and perpetuated dynastic control of some unions. See S. Rep. No. 1417, 85th Cong., 2d Sess. These abuses were among the "number of instances of breach of trust . . . [and] disregard of the rights of individual employees . . ." upon which Congress rested its decision that the legislation was required in the public interest.*fn13 Congress chose the alternative of a supervised election as the remedy for a § 401 violation in the belief that the protective presence of a neutral Secretary of Labor would best prevent the unfairness in the first election from infecting, directly or indirectly, the remedial election. The choice also reflects a conclusion that union members made aware of unlawful practices could not adequately protect their own interests through an unsupervised election. It is clear, therefore, that the intervention of an election

[ 389 U.S. Page 475]

     in which the outcome might be as much a product of unlawful circumstances as the challenged election cannot bring the Secretary's action to a halt. Aborting the exclusive statutory remedy would immunize a proved violation from further attack and leave unvindicated the interests protected by § 401. Title IV was not intended to be so readily frustrated.

Respondent argues that granting the Secretary relief after a supervening election would terminate the new officers' tenure prematurely on mere suspicion. But Congress, when it settled on the remedy of a supervised election, considered the risk of incumbents' influence to be substantial, not a mere suspicion. The only assurance that the new officers do in fact hold office by reason of a truly fair and a democratic vote is to do what the Act requires, rerun the election under the Secretary's supervision.

The Court of Appeals concluded that it would serve "no practical purpose" to void an old election once the terms of office conferred have been terminated by a new election. We have said enough to demonstrate the fallacy of this reasoning: First, it fails to consider the incumbents' possible influence on the new election. Second, it seems to view the Act as designed merely to protect the right of a union member to run for a particular office in a particular election. But the Act is not so limited, for Congress emphatically asserted a vital public interest in assuring free and democratic union elections that transcends the narrower interest of the complaining union member.

We therefore hold that when the Secretary of Labor proves the existence of a § 401 violation that may have affected the outcome of a challenged election, the fact that the union has already conducted another unsupervised election does not deprive the Secretary of his right to a court order declaring the challenged election void

[ 389 U.S. Page 476]

     and directing that a new election be conducted under his supervision.*fn14

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the case remanded to that court with direction to decide the merits of the Secretary's appeal.

It is so ordered.

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Disposition

372 F.2d 86, reversed and remanded.


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