Professional and trade unions are generally tasked with protecting the rights of their members and maximizing employee negotiating power with owners and management by presenting a united front. Usually, a union will enter into what is known as a “collective bargaining agreement” with an employer. The CBA will set rules that both employees and employers must abide by concerning issues such as wages, benefits, workers’ compensation, health insurance, and workplace breaks. Furthermore, CBAs often set a procedure for employees to make grievances against their employers. Unions’ negotiation of CBAs generally serve to benefit employees because the union is able to negotiate better terms for the workplace than employees could on their own. Individually, some terms of a CBA may not benefit employees. The California Court of Appeals recently addressed a claim by an employee in which he was attempting to sidestep the grievance procedures outlined in the CBA that he had agreed to.
The plaintiff in the recently decided case was a carpenter who was previously employed by the defendant. The plaintiff’s employment was conditioned upon agreeing to CBAs that were negotiated by two unions that the plaintiff was a member of. The CBAs in question mandated that any grievances employees had related to wage theft would be handled through binding arbitration, instead of in the state courts. The plaintiff made a claim in state court that the defendant had violated several employment laws and was not paying the plaintiff for work that had been done. The defendant responded to the plaintiff’s state court claims by attempting to enforce the arbitration agreement that was part of the CBAs. The state court granted the defendant’s motion and dismissed the case, leading the plaintiff to appeal the decision to the California Court of Appeals.
On appeal, the high court agreed with the lower court’s reasoning, holding that the grievance procedures outlined in the CBAs were clear and unambiguous and that the plaintiff had no right to ignore the CBAs. The court reasoned that a CBA should be evaluated just as any other contract would be and that the plaintiff understood and agreed to the CBA, and benefited from some of the provisions contained within it. As a result of the appellate findings and ruling, the plaintiff will be forced to pursue his claims at arbitration as stated in the CBAs.