The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether the California Brewers Association and statewide units of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters must defend themselves against a lawsuit alleging that a long-standing seniority provision in their collective-bargaining agreements has discriminated against blacks.
On its face, the quarter-century-old provision is racially neutral. It is a rule, apparently unique, under which prized benefits of seniority, including job security and opportunities for promotion, go only to "permanent" employes - those who work at least 45 weeks in a calender year.
While making no mention of race, the rule has been implemented in a discriminatory way, blacks charged in a class-action suit filed in U.S. Distirct Court. As a result, they alleged, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been violated.
The principal plaintiff, Abram Bryant of San Jose, worked in the brewing industry for seven years, including jobs with Falstaff Brewing Co. from 1968 to 1973 and with Theodore Hamm Co., starting in 1974.
Yet, he said, he was allowed to build up 45 weeks of service in nine of those years and consequently remained a "temporary" employe. Going further, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the record in the case shows that "no black has ever attained permanent employe status in a California brewery."
A trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the appeals court voted 2 to 1 last November to reinstate it.
The 45-week rule lacks the key element of seniority in that it doesn't correlate increases in benefits with increases in length of service, the court held.
The requirement that an employe be "permanent" in order to qualify for job security and promotions "appears innocuous," the court said. "The rub is that changed circumstances in the brewery industry, including greater automation, improved brewing methods, and consolidation of breweries, have lessened the demand for labor, so that now it is virtually impossible for any temporary employe, black or white, to work 45 weeks in one calender year."
By letting the case go to trial, the 9th Circuit said, it was merely giving Bryant a chance to prove his claim.
Bryant won't get the chance until the Supreme Court decides, in the term starting in October, whether he has right to maintain his suit.
One factor in the case is a 1977 decision in which the court, in a case involving the Teamsters and the trucking industry, held that "an otherwise neutral, legitimate seniority system does not become unlawful under (the 1964 civil rights act) simply because it may perpetuate pre-act discrimination."
As noted, however, the 9th Circuit didn't find the 45-week rule to be legally a part of a seniority system.
The court took other actions.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission began a proceeding to cancel the "Formica" trademark for countertop and cabinet surfaces, saying that it has become "the common descriptive name of an article or substance."
The FTC filed its cancellation petition with the Tradmark Trial and Appeal Board, which then was asked by Formica Corp. to dismiss the petition on the ground that the trademark was exempted from cancellation by the Tradmark Act of 1905.
The board refused to dismiss the commission petition and, last November, was upheld by the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. Yesterday, in a victory for the FTC, the High Court preserved the ruling.
The court open the way for the trial of four high-ranking officials of two publicly traded companies, TDA Industries and Westcalind Corp., on charges fo securities fraud.
The defendants, accused of accepting substantial undisclosed kickbacks while serving as officers and directors, are Douglas P. Fields, Alan E. Sandberg, Peter S. Davis and Frederick M. Friedman. They unsuccessfully had sought review of a ruling by the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.