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Legal Memorandum: Labor Union's Duty of Fair Representation

Issue: Under the fair representation doctrine, what duty have courts held that a labor union owes to its members?

Area of Law: Employee Law
Keywords: Duty of fair representation; Labor union
Jurisdiction: Federal, Virgin Islands
Cited Cases: 345 U.S. 330; 499 U.S. 65; 961 F.2d 1293; 386 U.S. 171; 657 F. Supp. 614; 424 U.S. 554
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 01/01/2009

A labor union owes its members a duty of fair representation—an obligation imposed upon a labor union to counterbalance its position as the exclusive bargaining representative for employees within a given bargaining unit.  See Hines v. Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., 424 U.S. 554 (1976); Faust v. RCA Corp., 657 F. Supp. 614 (M.D. Pa.1986); see also 29 U.S.C. § 159(a).

Although unions owe members a duty of fair representation, unions are granted discretion in determining how to pursue its members’ rights.  Air Line Pilots Ass’n Int’l v. O’Neill, 499 U.S. 65, 75-76 (1991).  But that discretion has limits; a union abuses its discretion and breaches its duty of fair representation when its "conduct toward a member of the collective bargaining unit is arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith."   Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 190 (1967).

This so-called “tripartite standard” announced in Vaca was reaffirmed and clarified by the Court more recently in O’Neill, where the Court stated that “a union breaches its duty of fair representation if its actions are either arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith.” 499 U.S. at 67 (emphasis added); see Ooley v. Schwitzer Div. Household Mfg. Inc., 961 F.2d 1293, 1302 (7th Cir. 1992); Connor v. Crowley Am. Transport, Inc., No. CIV. A. 92-5334 at *6 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 25, 1994).  The O’Neill Court held that the duty of fair representation requires unions not only […]