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decided: June 24, 1983.



Stevens, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Author: Stevens

[ 463 U.S. Page 148]

 JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the court.

As a result of a labor dispute between respondent union and the H. J. High Construction Company (High), the union passed out handbills urging consumers not to trade with a group of employers who had no business relationship of any kind with High. The question presented is whether that handbilling is exempted from the prohibition against secondary

[ 463 U.S. Page 149]

     boycotts contained in § 8(b)(4)*fn1 of the National Labor Relations Act, as amended, 29 U. S. C. § 158(b)(4), by what is known as the "publicity proviso" to that section.*fn2

High is a general building contractor retained by the H. J. Wilson Company (Wilson) to construct a department store in a shopping center in Tampa, Fla. Petitioner, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation (DeBartolo), owns and operates the center. Most of the 85 tenants in the mall signed a standard lease with DeBartolo providing for a minimum rent (which increases whenever a large new department store opens for business) plus a percentage of gross sales, and requiring the tenant to pay a proportionate share of the costs of maintaining the mall's common areas, to pay dues to a merchants' association, and to take part in four joint advertising brochures. Wilson signed a slightly different land lease agreement, but it also promised to pay dues to the

[ 463 U.S. Page 150]

     merchants' association and to share in the costs of maintaining the common areas. Under the terms of Wilson's lease, neither DeBartolo nor any of the other tenants had any right to control the manner in which High discharged its contractual obligation to Wilson.

The union conducted its handbilling at all four entrances to the shopping center for about three weeks, while the new Wilson store was under construction. Without identifying High by name, the handbill stated that the contractors building Wilson's Department Store were paying substandard wages, and asked the readers not to patronize any of the stores in the mall until DeBartolo publicly promised that all construction at the mall would be done by contractors who pay their employees fair wages and fringe benefits.*fn3 The

[ 463 U.S. Page 151]

     handbilling was conducted in an orderly manner, and was not accompanied by any picketing or patrolling. DeBartolo advised the union that it would not oppose this handbilling if the union modified its message to make clear that the dispute did not involve DeBartolo or any of Wilson's cotenants, and if it limited its activities to the immediate vicinity of Wilson's. When the union persisted in distributing handbills to all patrons of the shopping center, DeBartolo filed a trespass action in the state court and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. The Board's General Counsel issued a complaint.

The complaint recited the dispute between the union and High, and noted the absence of any labor dispute between the union and DeBartolo, Wilson, or any of the other tenants of the East Lake Mall. The complaint then alleged that in furtherance of its primary dispute with High, the union "has threatened, coerced or restrained, and is threatening, coercing or restraining, various tenant Employers who are engaged in business at East Lake Square Mall, and who lease space from DeBartolo in East Lake Square Mall, by handbilling the general public not to do business with the above-described tenant Employers . . . ." Complaint para. 8(a). The complaint alleged that the object of the handbilling "was and is, to force or require the aforesaid tenant Employers in East Lake Square Mall . . . to cease using, handling, transporting, or otherwise dealing in products and/or services of, and to cease doing business with DeBartolo, in order to force DeBartolo and/or Wilson's not to do business with High." Complaint para. 8(b).

After the union filed its answer, the parties stipulated to the relevant facts and submitted the matter to the Board for

[ 463 U.S. Page 152]

     decision. Without deciding whether the handbilling constituted a form of "coercion" or "restraint" proscribed by § 8(b)(4), the Board concluded that it was exempted from the Act by the "publicity proviso" and dismissed the complaint. Florida Gulf Coast Building Trades Council, AFL-CIO (Edward J. DeBartolo Corp.), 252 N. L. R. B. 702 (1980). The Board reasoned that there was a "symbiotic" relationship between DeBartolo and its tenants, including Wilson, and that they all would derive a substantial benefit from the "product" that High was constructing, namely Wilson's new store. The Board did not expressly state that DeBartolo and the other tenants could be said to be distributors of that product, but concluded that High's status as a producer brought a total consumer boycott of the shopping center within the publicity proviso.*fn4

The Court of Appeals agreed. 662 F.2d 264 (CA4 1981). It observed that our decision in NLRB v. Servette, Inc., 377 U.S. 46 (1964), had rejected a narrow reading of the proviso and that the Board had consistently construed it in an expansive manner. Finding the Board's interpretation consistent with the rationale of the National Labor Relations Act, it

[ 463 U.S. Page 153]

     held that High was a producer and that DeBartolo and the other tenants were distributors within the meaning of the proviso. This holding reflected the court's belief that in response to the union's consumer handbilling, DeBartolo and the storekeepers would be able "in turn, to apply pressure on Wilson's and High." 662 F.2d, at 271. Because the decision conflicts with that of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Pet, Inc. v. NLRB, 641 F.2d 545 (1981), we granted certiorari. 459 U.S. 904 (1982).*fn5

The Board and the union correctly point out that DeBartolo cannot obtain relief in this proceeding unless it prevails on three separate issues. It must prove that the union did "threaten, coerce, or restrain" a person engaged in commerce, with the object of "forcing or requiring" someone to cease doing business with someone else -- that is to say, it must prove a violation of § 8(b)(4)(ii)(B). It must also overcome both the union's defense based on the publicity proviso and the union's claim that its conduct was protected by the First Amendment. Neither the Board nor the Court of Appeals considered whether the handbilling in this case was covered by § 8(b)(4)(ii)(B) or protected by the First Amendment, because both found that it fell within the proviso. We therefore limit our attention to that issue.

The publicity proviso applies to communications "other than picketing," that are "truthful," and that do not produce either an interference with deliveries or a work stoppage by employees of any person other than the firm engaged in the

[ 463 U.S. Page 154]

     primary labor dispute. The Board and the Court of Appeals found that these three conditions were met, and these findings are not now challenged. The only question is whether the handbilling "[advised] the public . . . that a product or products are produced by an employer with whom the labor organization has a primary dispute and are distributed by another employer." The parties agree that this language limits the proviso's protection to publicity that is designed to create consumer pressure on secondary employers who distribute the primary employer's products. They do not agree, however, on what constitutes a producer-distributor relationship.

We have analyzed the producer-distributor requirement in only one case, NLRB v. Servette, Inc., supra. Servette involved a primary dispute between a union and a wholesale distributor of candy and certain other specialty items sold to the public by supermarkets. The union passed out handbills in front of some of the chainstores urging consumers not to buy any products purchased by the store from Servette. We held that even though Servette did not actually manufacture the items that it distributed, it should still be regarded as a "producer" within the meaning of the proviso. We thus concluded that the handbills advised the public that the products were produced by an employer with whom the union had a primary dispute (Servette) and were being distributed by another employer (the supermarket).

In reaching that conclusion, we looked to the legislative history of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, Pub. L. 86-257, 73 Stat. 519, which had simultaneously strengthened the secondary boycott prohibition and added the publicity proviso. We noted that a principal source of congressional concern had been the secondary boycott activities of the Teamsters Union, which for the most part represented employees of motor carriers who did not "produce" goods in the technical sense of the verb. The Teamsters' activities were plainly intended to be covered

[ 463 U.S. Page 155]

     by the new prohibitions in § 8(b)(4)(ii)(B), and we declined to hold that Congress, in using the word "produced," had intended to exclude the Teamsters entirely from the offsetting protections of the proviso. "There is nothing in the legislative history which suggests that the protection of the proviso was intended to be any narrower in coverage than the prohibition to which it is an exception, and we see no basis for attributing such an incongruous purpose to Congress." 377 U.S., at 55.

The focus of the analysis in Servette was on the meaning of the term "producer." In this case, DeBartolo is willing to concede that Wilson distributes products that are "produced" by High within the meaning of the statute. This would mean that construction workers, like truckdrivers, may perform services that are essential to the production and distribution of consumer goods. We may therefore assume in this case that High, the primary employer, is a producer within the meaning of the proviso.*fn6 Indeed, we may assume here that the proviso's "coverage" -- the types of primary disputes it allows to be publicized -- is broad enough to include almost any primary dispute that might result in prohibited secondary activity.*fn7

We reject, however, the Board's interpretation of the extent of the secondary activity that the proviso permits. The only publicity exempted from the prohibition is publicity intended to inform the public that the primary employer's product is "distributed by" the secondary employer. We are persuaded that Congress included that requirement to reflect

[ 463 U.S. Page 156]

     the concern that motivates all of § 8(b)(4): "shielding unoffending employers and others from pressures in controversies not their own." NLRB v. Denver Building & Construction Trades Council, 341 U.S. 675, 692 (1951).*fn8 In this case, the Board did not find that any product produced by High was being distributed by DeBartolo or any of Wilson's cotenants. Instead, it relied on the theory that there was a symbiotic relationship between them and Wilson, and that DeBartolo and Wilson's cotenants would derive substantial benefit from High's work. That form of analysis would almost strip the distribution requirement of its limiting effect. It diverts the inquiry away from the relationship between the primary and secondary employers and toward the relationship between two secondary employers. It then tests that relationship by a standard so generous that it will be satisfied by virtually any secondary employer that a union might want consumers to boycott. Yet if Congress had intended all peaceful, truthful handbilling that informs the public of a primary dispute to fall within the proviso, the statute would not have contained a distribution requirement.*fn9

In this case, DeBartolo is willing to assume that Wilson distributes products that are "produced" by High within the meaning of the statute. Wilson contracted with High to receive the construction services that are the subject of the primary dispute, and the cost of those services will presumably be reflected in the prices of the products sold by Wilson. But the handbills at issue in this case did not merely call for a boycott of Wilson's products; they also called for a boycott

[ 463 U.S. Page 157]

     of the products being sold by Wilson's cotenants. Neither DeBartolo nor any of the cotenants has any business relationship with High. Nor do they sell any products whose chain of production can reasonably be said to include High. Since there is no justification for treating the products that the cotenants distribute to the public as products produced by High, the Board erred in concluding that the handbills came within the protection of the publicity proviso.

Stressing the fact that this case arises out of an entirely peaceful and orderly distribution of a written message, rather than picketing, the union argues that its handbilling is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. The Board, without completely endorsing the union's constitutional argument, contends that it has sufficient force to invoke the Court's prudential policy of construing Acts of Congress so as to avoid the unnecessary decision of serious constitutional questions. See NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490, 500-501 (1979). That doctrine, however, serves only to authorize the construction of a statute in a manner that is "fairly possible." Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 62 (1932). We do not believe that the Board's expansive reading of the proviso meets that standard.*fn10

Nevertheless, we do not reach the constitutional issue in this case. For, as we noted at the outset, the Board has not

[ 463 U.S. Page 158]

     yet decided whether the handbilling in this case was proscribed by the Act. It rested its decision entirely on the publicity proviso and never considered whether, apart from that proviso, the union's conduct fell within the terms of § 8(b)(4)(ii)(B).*fn11 Until the statutory question is decided, review of the constitutional issue is premature.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


662 F.2d 264, vacated and remanded.


* Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Stephen A. Bokat for the Chamber of Commerce of the United States; by Harry L. Browne for the American Retail Federation; by G. Brockwel Heylin for the Associated General Contractors of America, Inc.; and by Edward J. Sack for the International Council of Shopping Centers, Inc.

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