Wednesday, October 24, 2001
Union May Terminate Secretary for Supporting Ballot Measure—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Federal law bars a secretary for a union local from pursuing a suit claiming she was fired for supporting a ballot initiative that the union opposed, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Two Monday affirmed a summary judgment in favor of United Food & Commercial Workers’ Union, Local 324. The plaintiff, Nattie Thunderburk, sued the union after she was terminated, ostensibly for having written a personal memorandum on her employer’s time.
Thunderburk charged that she was really fired for supporting Proposition 226, and that her termination breached an implied contract not to terminate without good cause, the covenant of good faith implied in the employment relationship, and the public policy favoring free speech on matters of public concern.
Proposition 226, defeated at the polls in 1998, would have prohibited unions from using dues money for political purposes without the consent of each member.
At the time of her firing, Thunderburk was classified as an executive secretary, performing clerical services for union business agents.
Orange Superior Court Judge Eileen C. Moore, since elevated to the Court of Appeal, ruled that Thunderburk was a “confidential employee” of the union and could not sue under any theory based on state law. Such actions, the judge held, are preempted by the federal Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959.
A number of courts have held that the LMRDA gives unions the absolute right to fire executive and confidential employees, so as not to frustrate the statute’s goal of ensuring that unions are democratically governed and responsive to their membership.
Justice Barton Gaut, writing Monday for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the trial judge that Thunderburk was a confidential employee. The undisputed evidence, Gaut explained, was that she had access to confidential information, including correspondence between the union and its lawyers, grievance files, officers and board members’ home addresses, death benefit files, and membership records.
“While in the instant case plaintiff did not have policymaking or management responsibilities and many of plaintiff’s job responsibilities were of a clerical, nonconfidential nature, it is undisputed that she nevertheless had access to confidential union information, which if disclosed, could have thwarted union policies and objectives,” Gaut wrote.
That was enough to classify her as a confidential employee, the jurist said.
The case is Thunderburk v. United Food & Commercial Workers’ Union, Local 324, 01 S.O.S. 5104.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company