On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County.
Pressler, Bilder and Gruccio. The opinion of the court was delivered by Bilder, J.A.D.
This is an interlocutory appeal on leave granted from the dismissal of that claim in a wrongful discharge suit alleging breach of contract. The principal issue is whether the operative facts alleged by plaintiff and largely uncontested permit a finding that plaintiff had a contractual right to job security -- i.e., the right to be fired only for just cause.
Plaintiff Robert McQuitty went to work for defendant General Dynamics Corporation at its Avenel plant in October 1976. Throughout his employment he was a member of Local 1035 of the UAW, the collective bargaining agent for the hourly paid employees of plaintiff's classification at that facility. At the time of his employment and through October 3, 1980 collective bargaining agreements existed between General Dynamics and the union which provided, among other things, for job security.*fn1 However, when the then existing contract expired on October 3, 1980, the parties were unable to agree on a new agreement, the union called a strike and its members, including plaintiff, stayed away from work.
When the strike was about 13 weeks old, the union offered to return to work without condition. The offer was made by a telegram which read as follows:
THE EMPLOYEES OF LOCAL 1035 UAW MAKE AN UNCONDITIONAL OFFER TO RETURN TO WORK AT THE GENERAL DYNAMICS CORPORATION, 150 AVENEL STREET, AVENEL NEW JERSEY EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY JANUARY 11, 1981. THE ENTIRE BARGAINING UNIT WHICH IS REPRESENTED BY LOCAL 1035 MAKES THIS UNCONDITIONAL OFFER TO RETURN TO WORK EFFECTIVE JANUARY 11, 1981 AND IS READY AND EXPECTS TO RETURN TO THE POSITIONS WHICH THEY OCCUPIED AND HELD PRIOR TO THE EXERCISE OF THEIR RIGHTS UNDER SECTION 7 AND SECTION 13 OF THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT.
The offer was accepted by a return telegram which read as follows:
WE ARE IN RECEIPT OF YOUR TELEGRAM DATED JANUARY 12, 1981. OF COURSE, THE COMPANY CONTINUES TO RECOGNIZE YOU AS THE COLLECTIVE BARGAINING REPRESENTATIVE FOR IT'S [sic] EMPLOYEES. THE COMPANY INTENDS TO RETURN TO WORK QUALIFIED FORMER STRIKERS AS PRODUCTION REQUIREMENTS DICTATE. THE RETURN TO WORK WILL BE IN ACCORDANCE WITH SENIORITY AS DEFINED IN OUR NOW EXPIRED CONTRACT. DUE TO PRODUCTION REQUIREMENTS, ALL PERSONS RETURNING TO WORK WILL BE EXPECTED TO DEVOTE THEIR EFFORTS TO THE PRODUCTION NEEDS OF THE COMPANY. THE COMPANY WILL CONTINUE TO RECOGNIZE, AS APPROPRIATE, GRIEVANCES TO BE PROCESSED UNDER THE GRIEVANCE PROCEDURE ESTABLISHED UNDER THE EXPIRED CONTRACT. IN THIS CONNECTION, THE COMPANY WILL STRICKLY [sic] ADHERE TO THE PROVISION OF ARTICLE XI, SECTION 5, OF THE EXPIRED AGREEMENT. YOUR COOPERATION IN THIS REGARD WILL BE VERY MUCH APPRECIATED. SPECIFICALLY THE UNION DEMANDS THAT IT'S [sic] OFFICERS AND OTHER REPRESENTATIVES BE GRANTED PREFERENTIAL SENIORITY WILL BE HONORED IN ACCORDANCE WITH THIS TELEGRAM. OUR CONCERNS WITH RESPECT TO THESE PROVISIONS WILL BE DISCUSSED WITH YOU ON THURSDAY AT OUR REGULAR NEGOTIATING MEETING.
WE ALSO REMIND YOU THAT THE FORMER CONTRACT HAS EXPIRED AND THAT TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF EMPLOYMENT ARE NOW CONTROLLED BY PROVISIONS OF THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT.
Plaintiff returned to work on January 13, 1981. On February 4, 1982 he claimed to have sustained a work-related injury and stayed away from work until March 1st when he contends his doctor approved of his return. His employment continued until his discharge on April 14, 1982. Throughout the 1981-82 period the union members worked without a new collective bargaining agreement.
Plaintiff instituted this action for wrongful discharge, alleging in a first count that his discharge breached a "written contract negotiated by the UAW . . . or . . . an implied common law contract of employment." In a second count plaintiff alleged a wrongful ...