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National Labor Relations Board v. Cook County School Bus

March 20, 2002


Petition for Enforcement of an Order of the National Labor Relations Board Nos. 13-CA-38108 and 13-CA-38310

Before Cudahy, Easterbrook, and Evans, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Evans, Circuit Judge.

Argued December 6, 2001

The Cook County School Bus company provides transportation for several school districts northwest of Chicago. Its 60 or so bus drivers are represented by a local teamsters union. The Company and the Union have gotten into more than a schoolyard scuffle over the Company's termination of their most recent collective bargaining agreement.

We pick up the story on September 23, 1998, when the Union informed the Company that it wished to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one scheduled to expire on November 30. A series of negotiations ensued in late October and November. During negotiations, the Company advocated a 3-year contractual term, while the Union wanted a 2-year term. A 3-year term eventually was included in the first synopsis of a proposed agreement which was presented to the Union membership. The membership overwhelmingly rejected the contract.

During a second round of negotiations, the Company and the Union again haggled over the contract term, but the Company wouldn't budge from its 3-year demand, which again made its way into a synopsis of the agreement. An even thornier issue arose over charters. In addition tooffering transportation to and from school, the Company provides charters for schools (for things like athletic events and field trips) and for private groups. Although drivers like charters since they mean more chances to earn money, charters soak up a lot of the Company's administrative time and account for only 8 percent of its gross revenues. Moreover, the method by which drivers bid on available charters could stump Pythagoras. The process attempts to reconcile factors such as a driver's seniority, the size and location of the requested charter, and whether it conflicts with a driver's normal route. With regard to seniority, junior and senior drivers have different interests, and both the Union and the Company disagree over which seniority lists--company or district-wide--govern.

John McGinn, the Union's chief negotiator, eventually proposed language that bypassed the charter morass. The second synopsis presented to the membership included the following language underneath the term:

Local 744 may notify Cook County School Bus in writing of its desire to reopen this Agreement for negotiations, but provided further, however that such negotiations shall be limited to bidding on charters in Article 12. This Agreement and all other Articles and Sections of this Agreement shall remain in full force and effect as herein above set forth. This reopener shall not extend past November 30, 2000. The Company did not object to the provision. The membership still rejected the second proposal.

The parties hammered out yet another agreement. Neither the reopener nor the contract term was discussed during these negotiations, so the 3-year term and reopener remained. The Union membership ratified this proposal. Because the parties had negotiated a number of labor agreements over the years, preparing a final version meant editing the most recent contract, which the Union saved on its computer. That task fell to Ted Bania, the Union's office accountant who doubled (regrettably) as a typist. When Bania typed in the changes, the following language in Article 23 ("Contract Term") appeared before the reopener clause:

This contract shall become effective the 1st day of December, 1998 and shall remain in full force and effect through November 30, 2001 and continue in full force and effect from year to year thereafter, unless terminated by mutual consent of the parties hereto, or unless either party shall notify the other, sixty (60) days prior to November 30, 1999, or November 30th of any year thereafter, of its desire to terminate or amend this agreement.

We have italicized some of this language to foreshadow its importance down the road. For now it suffices to note that nobody mentioned the November 30, 1999, date when the parties signed the agreement in February 1999.

Life went on as normal around the Company until mid-July when three employees approached Robert Smith, the general manager, and expressed their dissatisfaction with the Union. Smith told them he could not discuss the matter and that they should contact the National Labor Relations Board. Then a few times in August a group of employees showed Smith a list of workers who were dissatisfied with the Union. According to Smith, he told the employees he could not get involved.

What Smith did do was write a letter to the Union on September 10. Including the language in Article 23's first paragraph, he expressed the Company's intent of terminating the agreement. On September 13 Smith received a petition signed by 46 drivers stating that they no longer wanted to be represented by the Union. Smith wrote another letter to the Union, stating that the termination would take effect on November 30, 1999, (remember the italics) and that the Company would cease to recognize the Union as the employees' collective bargaining unit as of December 1.

True to its word, on December 1 the Company provided the employees with a "Management Update." It announced the termination of the labor contract, the withdrawal of recognition for the Union, and the fact that the Company would no longer be subtracting union dues from the drivers' paychecks. Smith also heralded a new lottery drawing to spice things up around the workplace. Every month the Company would award $1,400 at random drawings where 14 employees would be chosen to receive $100 apiece. The Company informed the drivers that the $1,400 was the amount that it previously had ...

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