9th Cir.
11-15737

The court of appeals affirmed a district court judgment in part and reversed in part. The court held that a labor organization had authority to levy assessments or increase dues or initiation fees by any of the procedures set out in the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act so long as union members’ rights were adequately protected in the approval process.

The Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) represented employees in the construction industry. For its part, the Northern California District Council of Laborers (NCDCL) acted as an intermediary between LIUNA and various Northern California local affiliated unions. Local 166, meanwhile, was a local union within NCDCL’s jurisdiction for masonry and plastering employees in and around San Francisco.

During LIUNA’s 2006 general convention, the union approved an organizing fee of twenty-five cents per hour for every affiliated local union involved in the construction industry. The fee was to fund activities designed to increase LIUNA’s membership. Similarly, at a general meeting in 2008, NCDCL approved wage and dues increases.

Alex Corns objected to, and eventually filed suit to challenge, the increased dues and organizing fees deducted from his wages as a member of Local 166. Corns maintained that the increases could not be imposed absent a secret ballot vote of the local membership.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court ruled in favor of the Unions. The court determined that § 101(a)(3) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) provided alternative methods for levying assessments and increasing dues, and required a secret ballot vote of the local membership only when a local labor organization imposed an assessment or dues increase. Because LIUNA and the NCDCL were not local labor organizations, the district court concluded that they validly approved the organizing fee and the dues increase following a majority vote of their delegates at a regular convention and a special convention, respectively.

The court of appeals affirmed in part, holding that LIUNA complied with the LMRDA when it enacted the organizing fee.

The court of appeals reviewed the plain language of the LMRDA, observing that under § 101(a)(3)(A), when a local labor organization seeks to increase dues or initiation fees or levy assessments, it must first obtain the approval of the majority of its members in good standing. That approval always requires a secret ballot vote of the local membership. Section 101(a)(3)(B), however, applied to dues or initiation fees increases or assessments imposed on members of a labor organization, “other than a local labor organization or a federation of national or international labor organizations.” Under that section, then, labor organizations, such as international unions, are authorized to increase dues or initiation fees or levy assessments by one of several methods, including by a majority vote of delegates at a regular or special convention.

Read together, those sections provide alternative methods for increasing dues or initiation fees or levying assessments, the court said. Thus the LMRDA requires that, prior to increasing dues or initiation fees or levying assessments, a local union must always obtain the majority approval of its members in good standing by a secret ballot vote. The statute, however, concurrently permits any other labor organization, except for certain excluded categories, to impose an identical dues or fees increase or assessment by any of the methods provided in § 101(a)(3)(B), including by majority delegate approval at a general or special convention.

LIUNA was an international union, so that its approval of the disputed fees was governed by LMRDA § 101(a)(3)(B). LIUNA in fact complied with the section when it adopted the resolution imposing the fees, and Corns asserted neither a procedural irregularity nor that the union members’ rights were insufficiently protected in the voting process. That meant LIUNA satisfied the LMRDA’s requirements when it adopted the organizing fee at a general convention. Because LIUNA properly implemented the organizing fee, the district court did not err in rejecting Corns’s challenge to the collection of the fee.

But with respect to the dues increase approved by NCDCL, the court concluded that the NCDCL lacked the statutory authority to ratify such an increase because Local 166 members were not, by the express terms of the International Union and Uniform District Council constitutions, members of the NCDCL. Because of this, the NCDCL violated the LMRDA when it imposed a dues increase on Local 166 members, and the district court erred in concluding otherwise.

Judge Bybee concurred, writing separately to explain his differing views about the proper interpretation of LMRDA § 101(a)(3). In his view, § 101(a)(3)(A) prescribes the required voting methods for the lawful approval of a levy payable by members of a local labor organization, and requires majority approval of the members of the local labor organization voting by secret ballot, while subsection (B) prescribes the required voting methods for the lawful approval of a levy payable by members of a labor organization other than a local labor organization or a federation of national or international labor organizations, and requires no secret ballot. The subsections were symmetrical, he said, and preserved the rights of union members to vote directly on any dues increases or, under subsection (B), at least to be equitably represented before any dues are levied on them. An international union can impose due and fees on its international members, a regional union on its regional members, and a local union on its members. That outcome was respectful of principles of equality and uniformity that were disregarded by the majority’s approach.