Discrimination litigation against unions can present unusual issues.  Unions exist for employees to present a unified front in bargaining with their employer.  Indeed, the very name “union” suggests that they are intended to behave as a single unit, the exclusive bargaining representative with the employer on the employees’ behalf.  The idea of such unity leaves unions ill equipped to handle claims, particularly class action claims, that pit employees against each other within the bargaining unit.

In Gomez v Service Employees International Union Local 87.pdf, Case No. C10-01888 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 10, 2010), the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued a decision that addresses numerous issues in this context. It could be argued that the decision arises out of an overbroad complaint and overbroad motion practice by the employer.

The plaintiffs in Gomez contended that the union systematically discriminated against Hispanic union members in favor of employees of other ethnicities or national origins.  They cited statements from union leadership reflecting indifference or worse towards Hispanics, as well as anecdotal evidence regarding specific discriminatory acts. They also alleged that the union discriminated against men in favor of women.  They asserted in claims before the district court based upon Title VII and California law, and the defendant filed a motion to dismiss.

The court quickly disposed of the gender discrimination allegations, finding that they were not properly raised in the employees’ charges of discrimination. It also dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims of disparate impact discrimination, finding that the plaintiffs had identified no facially neutral practice they contended applied more harshly against them.  Both of these rulings suggest that those claims should never been asserted in the first place.

The court next addressed the defendants’ motion to dismiss the claims of nationality discrimination. It found that the plaintiffs had properly stated claims of discrimination based upon their Hispanic origins, a finding that was unsurprising given the specific allegations of particular comments reflecting hostility to Hispanics or favoring of persons of other ethnic groups, as well as a “probable cause” entry by the EEOC. This ruling suggests that the defendants should probably not have moved to dismiss that claim. 

The court also noted that the defendants had suggested throughout their motion that the case was not suitable for class treatment, but the court stated that such arguments should be raised in connection with a motion to grant or deny certification.  Again, this suggests that the defendants should have raised the proper motion at the proper time.

The Bottom Line:  Class actions against unions are less common than those against employers, but raise many of the same types of issues.  Counsel in such cases should take care not to clutter their claims or defenses with pointless allegations or motions.