Friday, July 2, 2010
S.C. Limits Injunctions Against Public Employee Strikes
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Public employers that believe a threatened employee strike will endanger the public welfare must generally first go to the California Public Employment Relations Board before asking a court for injunctive relief, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Noting that the Legislature has expressly vested in the board initial jurisdiction over claims of unfair labor practices, the justices unanimously held that the City of San Jose’s allegations that a threatened strike by city employees in 2006 was illegal constituted such a claim.
Writing for the court, Justice Joyce L. Kennard explained:
“Whenever possible, labor disputes asserting unfair labor practices under the [Meyers-Milias-Brown Act] should be submitted first to PERB rather than a court. If an exception to the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies is claimed, the trial court should afford due deference to PERB and issue injunctive relief only when it is clearly shown that PERB’s remedy would be inadequate.”
The MMBA governs labor relations between most local public entities and their employees.
The City of San Jose sued the Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, which represented some 808 full-time city employees, on June 1, 2006, after negotiations on a contract that expired two months earlier reached an impasse and the union, per an agreement, gave the city 72 hours notice that work stoppages could start any time after June 2.
Seeking to enjoin 110 employees from engaging in any work stoppage, the city claimed that public health and safety would be endangered by disruptions to its environmental services department’s operation and maintenance of a water pollution control plant treating the waste and sewage water of some 1.3 million people before discharge into San Francisco Bay.
The city also alleged that a work stoppage would impair the ability of its transportation department to maintain and repair traffic signals and streetlight poles, and impair its general services department’s ability to adequately service facilities supporting communications among emergency personnel, such as police and fire departments.
The suit followed an unfair labor practice charge the union filed the previous day before the PERB, and the union and the PERB opposed the city’s request for an injunction. Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Kevin J. Murphy denied relief, citing the city’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies by not first seeking relief from the PERB.
The city and the union reached an agreement in November 2006, rendering the issue moot, but the Sixth District Court of Appeal agreed at the parties’ urging to address the issues presented due to their statewide importance. That court later affirmed Murphy’s decision in an opinion by Justice Richard J. McAdams.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, Kennard pointed out that the PERB’s initial jurisdiction over unfair labor practice charges was extended in 2001 to cover MMBA claims involving public employers, giving the PERB “exclusive initial jurisdiction.”
She rebuffed as “at odds with the body of public employment labor law as it has developed in California” the city’s contention that the statute was inapplicable to public employee strikes on the basis that public employees’ right to strike is founded in the common law.
However, Kennard said a public entity could bypass the PERB if it could establish a recognized exception to the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies.
Writing that the exhaustion requirement does not apply when an administrative remedy is inadequate or too slow to be effective, when irreparable harm would result by requiring exhaustion, or when it is clear that seeking administrative remedies would be futile, she rejected the union’s arguments that the PERB always presented an adequate remedy, and that proceedings before the board must always be finalized before judicial relief is sought. She also declined to accept the city’s argument that the board never presented an adequate remedy when public welfare might be imperiled.
“[T]he minimum time for PERB to seek injunctive relief from a court is 24 hours…,” she said. “In this case the Union agreed to give, and did give, the City at least 72 hours’ notice of the possibility of a strike. Thus, even if we assume that injunctive relief was appropriate here, there was sufficient time for the City to have asked PERB for injunctive relief and sufficient time for PERB to have decided whether to apply for such relief in court.”
The case is City of San Jose v. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, 10 S.O.S. 3696.
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