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Fulk v. United Transportation Union

February 19, 1997






Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois.

No. 93 C 3278 Richard Mills, Judge.

Before CUMMINGS, CUDAHY, and FLAUM, Circuit Judges.

CUDAHY, Circuit Judge.



Plaintiffs Jesse Fulk and Donald Cearlock appeal a grant of summary judgment against them in their suit under sec. 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act case (LMRA). 29 U.S.C. sec. 185. Fulk and Cearlock were employees of the Norfolk & Southern Railroad (the Railroad) and were members of the United Transportation Union (the Union). This is the plaintiffs' second effort to upset a union membership vote to approve the modification of a collective bargaining agreement. *fn1

At this juncture, the plaintiffs are appealing with respect to Count II. They claim that the Union's decision to conduct a membership vote craft-by-craft and district-by-district violated the Union's Constitution. The district court granted summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not exhausted their Union grievance procedures. This issue is one for the district court to resolve in its discretion. The district court in this case, however, took an overly restrictive view of its own latitude to assess the plaintiffs' claims. We vacate and remand.

I. Factual Background

The Union represents workers employed by the Norfolk & Southern Railroad. The Railroad groups workers into several geographic districts, known as "seniority districts." The plaintiffs were members of the Springfield District. The Union membership was also divided into several, considerably larger, geographical units, known as General Committees of Adjustment (GCAs), which were in turn divided into local subcommittees. The plaintiffs were members of the same General Committee of Adjustment, which embraces several seniority districts.

This dispute arose when the Union brought up for membership vote a proposed modification of one of its agreements with the Railroad. The "crew consist" agreement, covering conductors, brakemen and yardmen, governs the size of the crew used to operate each train. The original agreement, adopted in 1984, allowed the Railroad to reduce the crew size from two brakemen and a conductor to one brakeman and one conductor as workers retired or otherwise left the Railroad's employ. As a complement to the reduction in crew size, the Railroad agreed to share, as the crews were reduced, the resulting cost savings with the workers. Whenever a train ran with only two crew members, the Railroad paid $53.25 into a "productivity fund," which was credited to the workers. A separate productivity fund was maintained for each seniority district. The amount paid into each fund depended on the number of trains in that particular district which had been operated with two-member crews.

The two modifications disputed here were negotiated in 1991. First, the crew consist agreement was to be modified to allow the Railroad to operate with one-person crews when the size of the work force within a particular seniority district had declined sufficiently. Second, the productivity funds were to be eliminated. In their place, the Railroad would make a one-time payment in December 1991 of $20,000 to each of its employees and an additional payment of $40,000 to each employee upon death, retirement or termination of employment.

The Union presented each modification separately to the membership for approval. If the membership failed to approve the modification to the crew consist agreement, the whole plan was to be abandoned. However, if the crew reduction were approved, it would go into effect whether or not the vote approved the productivity fund buyout.

The Union leadership decided to implement a different voting procedure for each of the two proposals. The reduction in crew size was put to an aggregate vote of all members of a particular GCA. Votes were tallied within each craft (conductor, brakeman and yardman). Acceptance of the proposal by a majority of each craft's workers was required to approve the new crew consist agreement. In the event, the new crew consist agreement was approved as required by each craft.

The Union leadership put the buyout vote to an independent vote in each seniority district, a smaller group than the GCAs. The result in each district would determine the fate of that district's productivity fund. The Union justified the district-by-district voting procedure for the productivity funds on the grounds that the value of the funds varied from district to district, as did the relative proportion of older workers to younger workers. Within each district, a majority of each craft was again required to approve the proposal. The results of the productivity fund buyout vote were mixed. Some districts approved and others rejected the proposal. Six hundred votes in all were cast within the GCA. Among those voters, the buyout ...

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