On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County.
J. H. Coleman, Havey and Stern. The opinion of the court was delivered by Stern, J.A.D.
Plaintiff Local 827 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (the Union) filed complaints against defendants Edna S. Trad, John T. Dixon, and Marjorie E. Simms, employees of New Jersey Bell Telephone Company (Bell), seeking to enforce disciplinary fines it imposed on them for strike breaking. In their joint answer, filed after consolidation of the cases, defendants challenged the authority of the union to fine them. They asserted that the Union "failed to advise [them] of their right to resign from Union membership," and in fact "affirmatively and constructively prevented [them] from resigning." In their joint counterclaim, defendants charged that plaintiff "ha[d] engaged in a continual and consistent pattern of harassment and intimidation against the defendants for the sole purpose of insuring strict obedience to its Union decisions."
After a two-day bench trial, the trial judge held that the court lacked "jurisdiction to consider the defense proffered by the defendants." However, the judge found that the court nevertheless had jurisdiction to enforce the fines, and an order was entered to that effect.
On this appeal, defendants challenge the trial judge's conclusion that he did not have jurisdiction to consider the defense. We reverse.
Local 827 represents Bell employees in their dealings with the company. The union operates as a modified, "closed shop," which means that Bell employees can become members of the union or can choose to be dues-paying non-members.
Defendants claim that at the time they were hired and thereafter they were told that union membership was a condition of employment with Bell. Ms. Trad testified that when she transferred from Southern Bell to New Jersey Bell, she was approached by a union representative, who asked her to sign a union card and who told her that she had to be a member of the union in order to work for the company. Ms. Simms related a similar story to the effect that she was told by the same union representative, "[i]f you want to work here, you sign the card." Mr. Dixon testified that he also was told by a different union representative that union membership "was a condition of employment." All three defendants testified that they would not have joined or would have resigned from the union if they knew they had the right to do so or to become dues-paying non-members.
In 1983, the union voted in favor of a strike against Bell.*fn1 The strike lasted from August 8, 1983 to August 26, 1983. By letter dated August 11, 1983, defendants were formally informed by the union delegate that the strike against the Bell System was "on," that it was their "obligation . . . not [to] report to work," and that if they did work, "charges" would be brought against them pursuant to the union's constitution. At that point, defendants separately inquired as to the possibility of resigning from the union. They claim they were again told that union membership was a condition of their employment. Thereafter, they each decided to cross the picket line and work during the strike.
Following the strike, in September of 1983, the union brought charges against defendants for violating union provisions against working during a strike. After the matter was tried by the union, each defendant was fined in the amount of 80% of their base salary earned during the strike, an amount estimated to be their take-home pay for that period. The union sought judicial enforcement of its decision after the defendants refused to pay the fines.
As noted above, following trial, the trial judge ruled that the court lacked "jurisdiction to consider the defense proffered by the defendants." Relying primarily on Milk Drivers & Dairy Employees Union v. Vevoda, 772 F.2d 530 (9th Cir.1985), cert. den. 475 U.S. 1036, 106 S. Ct. 1246, 89 L. Ed. 2d 354 (1986), the judge stated:
This Court finds that the doctrine of primary jurisdiction which recognizes the intent of Congress to have matters of national labor policy decided in the first instance by the NLRB, applies here.
The judge, however, found that the court nevertheless maintained jurisdiction to enforce the fines. The judge ordered that execution of the judgment "be withheld for 30 days in order for the defendants to petition the National Labor Relations Board for relief." Plaintiff was permitted to execute on the judgment if the defendants did not ...