(CN) - The 9th Circuit on Thursday revived part of a union worker's challenge to a dues increase by an umbrella labor organization.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco agreed with union worker Alex Corns that the Northern California District Council of Laborers had overstepped its authority when it approved a dues hike in 2008.
Corns, now retired from the Hod Carriers Local Union No. 166, sued his local union, the district council and the Laborers International Union of North America over their increased dues and fees. He argued that the umbrella unions needed the approval of a majority of local members, typically through a secret ballot vote, to ratify higher dues or fees.
A federal judge rejected Corns's challenge, and the 9th Circuit reversed a portion of that ruling.
The three-judge panel said a local majority is only required when a local union wants to raise dues. An international union like LIUNA can do so through "alternative methods," the court ruled, including by a majority vote of delegates at a convention, as it did in 2006 when it ratified a $0.25 organization fee per hour worked for all construction unions.
This structure "balances the twin goals of protecting union democracy and preserving union self-governance," Judge Richard Paez explained.
While the international union clearly had the legal authority to increase organization fees, Paez ruled, the district council did not.
The district council, which acts as an intermediate body between the international and local unions, "lacked the statutory authority to ratify a dues increase because the local union members were not members of that organization," Paez explained.
The council was created by LIUNA and has 15 local affiliate unions in Northern California. Its membership consists of delegates from its affiliated local unions, including Local No. 166.
Its constitution and bylaws "explicitly define the membership of district councils, such as the NCDCL, as the delegates from affiliated locals unions" -- not the union members themselves, the court ruled.
The panel reversed and remanded this portion of the lower court's ruling for the unions.
Judge Jay Bybee agreed with the judgment, but wrote separately to disagree with the majority's finding that federal law allows umbrella labor organizations to approve levies through "alternative methods."
"I read these sections as to protect union members against undemocratic efforts to raise their dues and fees, not to enable the 'international unions ... to establish local unions' rate of dues' without regard for equality or uniformity," Bybee wrote, quoting the majority opinion.
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