Despite contract, union members can sue directly

If you think you can prevent employees from suing you directly by negotiating a union contract specifying that all employment disputes go to arbitration, think again.

Even if the collective-bargaining agreement specifies that every employment-law dispute will be arbitrated, your employees still can go to state or federal court with their claims. That includes claims brought under the New York State Human Rights Law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Recent case: Steven Pyett and several other Temco Services employees worked as night watchmen in a commercial office building. They tried to sue their employer for age discrimination, alleging that they had been assigned to inferior locations and less desirable positions than younger employees.

But the employer said they had to use the union contract’s arbitration mechanism to bring their Age Discrimination in Employment Act and related state-law claims. Why? Because the contract specified that all employment-discrimination claims go to arbitration as the “sole and exclusive remedy.”

The men told the trial court that the union wouldn’t help them take the age-discrimination case to arbitration, leaving them with no legal remedy. The court ruled the agreement didn’t apply to the men. The employer appealed.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the men and sent the case back for trial. It reasoned that, unlike individual arbitration agreements, union agreements aren’t binding on individuals simply because they may leave employees with no remedy if their union won’t go to bat for them. (Pyett, et al., v. Pennsylvania Building Company, et al., No. 06-3047, 2nd Cir., 2007)

Final tip: Discuss arbitration and this case with your labor negotiator before the next round of contract talks. Specifying arbitration may just cost you more time and money, since the union may force you into arbitration and employees still may sue you in court. When negotiating your next contract, don’t concede much in exchange for arbitration.