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Thomas K. Begeske, et al v. General Teamsters Union

January 31, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr.


This matter arises out of the failure of Defendant General Teamsters Union, Local 673 ("Local 673") to file a timely notice with Plaintiff's employer, UChicago Argonne, LLC, of its desire to reopen the collective bargaining agreement between Defendant and UChicago Argonne to renegotiate wages for Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs filed a one-count complaint alleging breach of the duty of fair representation. Both parties have moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability [68 & 74], Plaintiffs have moved to deem requests to admit admitted [72], and Defendant has moved to strike Plaintiffs' reply [87]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Plaintiffs' motion to deem requests to admit admitted [72], denies Defendant's motion to strike [87], and denies Defendant's motion for summary judgment [68]. The Court grants Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment [74].

I. Background

Defendant General Teamsters Union, Local 673 ("Local 673") operates as a "labor organization" under the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 ("LMRA"). Plaintiffs are employed by UChicago Argonne, LLC ("Argonne"). Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement ("the agreement") between Local 673 and Argonne, Local 673 is the exclusive bargaining representative of Plaintiffs in their dealings with Argonne. Plaintiff Thomas Begeske, a union steward with Local 673, was responsible for interacting with the union concerning labor disputes and the filing of grievances. Javier Najera, Local 673's business agent, monitored and administered the collective bargaining agreement with Argonne. Paul Hawkins was the president of the union, and Roger Kohler was the union's business manager, secretary-treasurer, and principal officer. Both Kohler and Hawkins were elected to their positions in November 2007.

Section 17.2 of the collective bargaining agreement between Local 673 and Argonne contained a two-year wage-reopener clause which stated:

Notwithstanding the preceding sentences in this Section 17.2, the Union or the Laboratory may reopen Appendix A for the purpose of negotiating basic hourly rates to be effective on March 9, 2009 and March 8, 2010. This Agreement will be reopened for such purpose only if either party notifies the other in writing at least sixty (60) calendar days prior to March 6, 2009 that it desires to reopen the Agreement. Failing receipt by either party of such written notice prior to said sixty days, this Agreement shall continue in full force and effect until its expiration date.

Local 673 negotiated the agreement with Argonne on behalf of its members and customarily reopened collective bargaining agreements containing wage reopener clauses. Although nothing in Section 17.2 guarantees that Argonne will give the union a raise as a result of any negotiations, Darryl Howe, the manager of employee relations at Argonne, testified that the only period when the union did not receive a raise was during a federal wage freeze in 1993.

The union relies upon a computer system, the Titan System, to administer contracts, update membership lists, and keep track of dues payments. The Titan System was in place prior to Hawkins and Kohler taking office in January 2008, and the union historically has relied on the system for these tasks. The Titan System is not networked to other computers in Defendant's office; rather, it is connected to the Teamsters' International Office in Washington, D.C. To access information on the Titan System, one runs a query on the database. Unlike certain calendar and e-mail software programs such as "Outlook," there are no event driven individual "pop-up" notifications that one receives when signing into the Titan System. Reports produced on the Titan System contain columns for the start date and the end date of a CBA, but there is no database or search column for information relating to a wage reopener.

Kohler, along with two secretaries, had access to the Titan System. Kohler's duties included sending out notices of CBA renewals and wage reopeners. It was Kohler's regular practice to process wage openers the first or second week of the month, because "virtually all" of the union's other collective bargaining agreements have expiration dates at the end of the month. His assistant would print from the Titan System monthly a list to keep track of employers with upcoming contract expirations. These reports do not include or identify contracts that have mid-contract or mid-term wage reopeners. Kohler testified that contracts or wage reopeners generally expire at the end of a month, but that a few contracts may expire in the middle of the month. It is undisputed that the Argonne collective bargaining agreement required Local 673 to notify Argonne on or before January 5, 2009, that it desired to reopen the agreement to negotiate wages.

In late November or early December 2008, Begeske called Najera and reminded him that the time to give notice pursuant to the wage reopener clause would expire shortly. Najera, as a business agent, does not personally send a notice to employers of the union's intent to renegotiate a collective bargaining agreement or wage reopener. Begeske did not call anyone else from the union to remind them of the wage reopener, but Najera testified (and Defendant admits) that Najera relayed the information about the upcoming deadline for the Argonne contract to Kohler, whose job it was to keep track of the wage opener dates. Kohler told Najera that the contract would pop up in the Titan System. On January 4 or 5, 2009, Begeske called Najera a second time and asked whether or not the union had sent the wage reopener letter. Najera again told him not to worry.*fn1 After the conversation with Begeske in January 2009, Najera again told Kohler that the notification needed to be sent out. Despite these reminders and the common practice of reopening agreements, Local 673 failed to notify Argonne on or before January 5 that it desired to reopen the agreement and negotiate wages. Instead, the union notified Argonne on January 14, nine days after the deadline.

In late January, Argonne informed Defendant that Argonne would not reopen the agreement because Defendant had missed the deadline. This was the first time that the union and Kohler had sent a late notice either to renew or reopen a contract for negotiations. On January 24, both Kohler and Najera sent letters to a labor and employment attorney at Argonne, asking Argonne to reconsider its denial of the union's request to reopen negotiations, based on what the union dubbed a "clerical error." In his letter, Kohler stated,

I value and respect the ability my staff to handle their responsibilities in a professional manner. Every manager has delegate to his staff, but I am ultimately responsible for any such failings in their work. We have hundreds of contracts at this Local and this procedure has been done flawlessly to date. This was a clerical error. Virtually all of our contracts end at the end of the month. The 60 Day limit came 1 day after the return from the Holidays. My staff person, Business Representative, and I are devastated by the implications of this error.

Najera, in his letter, stated that he "would like to formally apologize for my untimeliness in sending the request for reopening wages in order to renegotiate." He also told Argonne that Begeske informed him of the expiration date being 2009 for wages and that he "immediately had the notification sent." However, during his deposition, Najera admitted that he did not have a notification sent to Argonne. He also explained in his deposition that it was not his error, and that he wrote this to take responsibility for the union's error. After receiving these letters, Argonne agreed to meet with union officials; however, they ultimately refused to reopen the CBA to renegotiate Plaintiffs' wages.

On May 20, 2009, Argonne notified Defendant that it would have negotiated the wages in good faith if Defendant had timely requested to reopen the agreement. On previous occasions when Defendant and Argonne negotiated wages pursuant to a wage reopener clause, union members have received between 2.8% and 3.2% raises per year. Plaintiffs did not receive a raise in 2009 or 2010. As a result of Defendant's failure to timely file a request to reopen the ...

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