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MOBIL Oil Corp. v. National Labor Relations Board

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT


decided: July 17, 1973.

MOBIL OIL CORPORATION ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD, RESPONDENT

Stevens, Circuit Judge, Grant,*fn* Senior District Judge, and Gordon,*fn** District Judge.

Author: Stevens

STEVENS, Circuit Judge:

The question presented is whether employees have a statutory "right to representation" at fact-finding interviews conducted by management during an investigation of suspected theft of company property. Distinguishing a series of earlier cases, the Board held that such a right was created by § 7 of the National Labor Relations Act for employees who (a) personally requested Union representation at such interviews, and (b) reasonably feared that their jobs were in jeopardy. The Union contends that there is no statutory or logical basis for the Board's limitations on the right, while the Company argues that the right itself does not exist unless created by contract. These arguments persuade us that the Board has adopted an untenable interpretation of § 7 of the Act.

I.

The facts are undisputed. In April, 1969, the Company's security department began an investigation of unauthorized removal of Company property at its Cicero plant. On July 1, management decided to interview nine employees suspected of complicity.*fn1 No decision to discipline any of the nine suspects was made before the interviews began. The Board found, however, that the Company had "decided that during the interviews no union representative would be permitted and that none would be allowed prior to the Company making any preliminary decision. Should preliminary action be taken with respect to any of the individuals, upon request, union representation at that point would be allowed."*fn2

The first employee interviewed (Matthews) did not request representation. However, before the second interview commenced, a Union representative requested that he be permitted to attend the remaining interviews; this request was refused. In addition to the request by the Union representative, which could reasonably be interpreted as a timely request on behalf of all of the unit employees except Matthews, two of the employees (Burnett and Smith) individually asked to have a Union representative present. Each of these requests was also refused.

After the interviews had been concluded, six employees were suspended, two returned to work, and one resigned. Subsequently, five of the six suspendees were discharged, the sixth was suspended for five days, and the "return to work" decision for the other two was confirmed. Later, the Union filed a grievance on behalf of four discharged employees: Matthews (who had made no request for representation); Burnett and Smith (who made individual requests); and Hill (who made no individual request but presumably was covered by the Union's). The disposition of that grievance is not described in the findings.

Two months later the Union filed a charge relating to these four employees with the Board. On January 4, 1971, the complaint issued, describing the interviews and alleging two separate violations of the Act. Paragraph VIII alleged a violation of § 8(a) (1) by interfering with the exercise of § 7 rights of employees Matthews, Burnett, Smith and Hill; paragraph IX alleged a violation of § 8(a) (5) by derogating the Union's status as exclusive collective bargaining representative.

Although the complaint clearly identified two separate theories, at the hearing before the Trial Examiner the parties apparently assumed that both legal issues turned on the factual validity of the general counsel's contention that the real purpose of the interviews was to make a record to support disciplinary action that had already been decided upon, and therefore that the refusal to permit a Union representative to be present violated both § 8(a) (1) and § 8(a) (5) under the Board's then recent decision in Texaco, Inc., Houston Producing Division, 168 NLRB 361.*fn3 The Company argued that Texaco was distinguishable and that this case was controlled by Board decisions finding no unfair labor practice if the interviews from which the Union is excluded are plainly fact-finding in character and precede any decision on discipline.*fn4

The Trial Examiner's characterization of the issues indicated that both the Union's right to be present and the individual employee's right to be represented by the Union depended on the same factual determination. He stated:

"The issue of whether the denial of a union representative during the interviews herein contravenes the Statute concerns itself with the prohibitions contained in Section 8(a) (1) and (5) of the Act, specifically, the interference, restraint, or coercion of employees in the exercise of their right to bargain collectively through a representative of their own choosing and the refusal to bargain collectively with such bargaining representative with respect to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment."*fn5

In his findings of fact, which were accepted by the Board, the Examiner concluded that "no decision to discipline, tentative or otherwise, had been made by the Company prior to conducting the employee interviews. . . ."*fn6 He therefore held that the Company was under no obligation to permit Union representation during the interviews, and neither § 8(a) (1) nor § 8(a) (5) had been violated. He recommended dismissal of the entire complaint.

Although the case was treated by the Hearing Examiner as one involving the right to Union representation in bargaining with the Company -- and therefore with the primary emphasis on § 8(a) (5) and § 9(a) of the Act -- the Board's decision rested on a different legal theory. The Board accepted the conclusion that there was no violation of § 8(a) (5) -- and presumably no impairment of the Company's obligation to treat the Union as the exclusive bargaining representative of the unit employees -- but held that the denial of the requests by Burnett and Smith violated § 8(a) (1). Under the Board's reasoning, the Company properly rejected the Union's request to represent Hill and others, but improperly rejected the requests by Burnett and Smith to be represented by the Union.*fn7

The remedy selected by the NLRB is attacked by both the Union and the Company. The Board ordered the Company to cease and desist "from requiring that any employee take part in an interview or meeting without union representation, if such representation has been requested by the employee and if the employee has reasonable grounds to believe that the matters to be discussed may result in his being subject to disciplinary action." App. 53. No reinstatement, back pay, or other relief for either Burnett or Smith was ordered.

The Board's decision rests squarely on its reading of § 7 of the Act. Before considering the language and basic purpose of that section, it is appropriate to identify certain matters that are not involved on this appeal.

First, we are not concerned with the employees' unquestioned right to bargain collectively for a contractual provision which would guarantee them Union representation at investigatory or, indeed, other interviews with management. Apparently that type of contractual protection was sought, but not obtained, by the Union in its 1970 negotiations with the Company. The employees' right to use economic pressure to secure such a condition of employment is plainly guaranteed by § 7 of the Act.

Second, we are not concerned with the effort of individual employees to enforce or to ascertain the true character of the contractual terms which their collective bargaining agent has negotiated for them. Cf. NLRB v. Ben Pekin, 452 F.2d 205 (7th Cir. 1971). Our broad construction of § 7 in such a context is inapplicable here since, admittedly, the employees' requests were unrelated to any contractual right.

Third, this is not a case in which there is any danger that the questioning was actually motivated by a desire to impair the employees' right to organize, to detect Union activity, or in any way to influence collective bargaining negotiations. Considerations which may have influenced Board decisions in such cases are not present here.*fn8

Fourth, the record in this case does not present us with the task of reviewing the Board's evaluation of the relative importance of the employees' interest in fair procedures and protection from arbitrary discharge as opposed to management's interest in effective investigation of inventory shortages and suspected dishonesty. Nothing in the Board's opinion indicates that the Board itself made any attempt to balance the conflicting interests affected by its decision. On the contrary, its opinion simply explains the conclusion as mandated by the language of the statute.*fn9

Finally, we do not ourselves resolve the policy question which counsel have extensively argued in their briefs. From the employee's standpoint, there are certainly valid and persuasive reasons for requiring Union participation in any management interview which may affect his further employment. Those reasons are particularly compelling when possible criminal charges lurk in the background. On the other hand, from the standpoint of management, and indeed the entire economy, the delays and costs associated with an adversary, or semi-adversary, fact-finding process may impose burdens on efficient management which a cost-conscious, competitive business cannot tolerate. Of course, this question may be answered in different ways by freely negotiated collective bargaining agreements. But whether to impose one answer on the economy as a whole presents a question of national policy that must be resolved by Congress.

Notwithstanding the breadth of the language contained in § 7, we do not believe Congress answered that question when it passed the Wagner Act in 1935.*fn10 In a literal sense it may be true, as the Board argues, that if a Union representative attends an interview with an employee, the two are engaged in "concerted activity," and also that their purpose is "mutual aid or protection." But such parsing of a sentence apart from its historical context and the central purpose of the section is inappropriate. For it is well settled that certain activities which are described by a literal reading of § 7 are not in fact protected.*fn11

The "central purpose" of the National Labor Relations Act "was to protect employee self-organization and the process of collective bargaining from disruptive interferences by employers." American Ship Building Co. v. NLRB, 380 U.S. 300, 317, 13 L. Ed. 2d 855, 85 S. Ct. 955. The basic thrust of § 7 is to enable employees to organize and to apply economic pressure against their employers in appropriate situations.*fn12 Scholarly analyses of the reach of § 7 devote almost no attention to the language of the section, but instead consider the various situations in which the use of economic pressure by employees is appropriate.*fn13 In our opinion, economic pressure may properly be applied to compel employers to follow acceptable investigatory procedures, or to determine the consequences of various kinds of misconduct, but economic pressure should not be a component of the fact-finding process itself. The requested Union representation at an investigatory interview is clearly not the kind of "concerted activity" with which § 7 is primarily concerned.

If we turn from the central purpose of § 7 to a consideration of its language, we also find the Board's reading unacceptable. The relevant portion of the section provides:

"Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, . . ."

29 USC § 157.

Nothing in that text indicates that the right to engage in a given concerted activity should be protected when asserted by an individual employee but not when a request is made by his bargaining representative. Nor does the text suggest the source of the Board's view that the right of representation depends on whether the employee has any reasonable basis for believing that his job is in jeopardy. The carefully tailored limitations on this procedural right were designed by the Board, not by any statutory mandate.*fn14

A fair interpretation of the broad purpose and language of § 7 persuades us that the novel "right to representation" recognized by the Board in this case is not a "concerted activity" within the meaning of the Act. This conclusion is supported by precedent, NLRB v. Ross Gear & Tool Co., 158 F.2d 607 (7th Cir. 1947);*fn15 Texaco, Inc. v. NLRB, 408 F.2d 142 (5th Cir. 1969); and by history. If the Board's interpretation of §§ 7 and 8(a) (1) correctly reflected the will of Congress, we are persuaded that this interpretation would have been recognized many years ago.

Enforcement Denied.

Disposition

Enforcement Denied


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