Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Court: PERB Has Jurisdiction Over Essential Employee Strikes

City of San Jose v. Operating Engineers Local No. 3 (6th District Court of Appeal, Case No. H030272) (Issued on 3/4/08)

This is the first Court of Appeal decision addressing whether PERB or the superior courts have initial jurisdiction over “essential employee” strikes that threaten public health and safety. Cases involving this identical issue are also pending before the First and Third District Courts of Appeal.

This case involved the City of San Jose. In May 2006, the City and Operating Engineers Local No. 3 failed to reach agreement on a new labor contract. On May 30, the Union notified the City that it could go on strike in as soon as three days. The City responded that it would seek an injunction against the strike. On May 31, the Union filed an unfair practice charge with PERB alleging that the City’s threat to seek injunctive relief violated its members’ right to strike under the MMBA. On June 2, the City asked the superior court to enjoin 67 “essential” employees from striking, claiming that a strike by those employees would violate the common law prohibition against strikes that threaten public health and safety. Both the Union and PERB opposed the City’s request on the grounds that PERB has exclusive initial jurisdiction over enjoining a potentially unlawful strike. The superior court denied the injunction, finding that the City failed to exhaust administrative remedies because PERB had exclusive initial jurisdiction over the strike.

The Court of Appeal framed the issue as whether the “MMBA arguably prohibits or arguably protects” the threatened strike by the Union and the City’s alleged interference with the strike. In finding the strike arguably prohibited by the MMBA, the court broadly states that any illegal strike “may run afoul of the MMBA.” Conversely, the court then finds that because the strike may be legal, it is arguably protected by the MMBA.

Having determined that PERB has exclusive initial jurisdiction over strikes because they are arguably prohibited and/or protected by the MMBA, the court then considers whether an exception exists where the strike involves "essential" employees. In rejecting any exception, the court cites PERB’s expertise in administering the statewide public employment labor relations scheme as support for recognizing its jurisdiction over essential employee strikes. The court also rejected the City's argument that PERB’s procedures for deciding requests for injunctive relief take too long. The court rejected this argument primarily because by the time the City requested injunctive relief from the court in this case, PERB had already filed papers with the court.

* Under the court’s broad reasoning, PERB arguably has jurisdiction over all employee strikes under the MMBA since any strike can be prohibited and/or protected by the MMBA. The Court did not address the fact that a strike could violate the common law prohibition on strikes separate and apart from the MMBA.
* The potential delay caused by PERB's involvment will continue to be a key issue in these cases. Here, PERB was only able to beat the City to court because the Union gave the City three days’ notice of the strike. However, the MMBA arguably does not require a union to give the employer any notice before striking.
* As mentioned above, this identical issue is pending before the 1st and 3rd DCA's. If either rules the other way, expect the Supreme Court to weigh in...