The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that employes cannot be sued for damages for engaging in wildcat strikes.
The 7-to-2 ruling, based on a reading of federal labor law, leaves employers with no one to sue for damages and little legal recourse against strikes not formally authorized by a union.In the view of yesterday's dissenters, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William E. Rehnquist, it leaves workers totally unaccountable for "admittedly illegal acts."
Complete Auto Transit Inc. and other Flint, Mich., employers had attempted to collect damages from Teamsters union members after a 1976 wildcat strike. A U.S. District Court judge and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that individual members were not liable under the Labor-Management Relations Act. The court affirmed those judgments yesterday.
Congress "clearly" wanted to "shield individual employers," Justice William J. Brennan wrote for the majority, " . . . even though it might leave the employer unable to recover for his losses." In fact, he said, the relevant section of the law was a "deeply felt congressional reaction" against the Supreme Court's 1915 Danbury Hatters ruling in which many workers lost their homes after a damages action stemming from a nationwide, union-directed boycott.
Brennan said that employers had a "significant array" of other remedies against wildcat strikers, including discharge from work. The dissenters, along with Justice Lewis F. Powell, who wrote a concurrence, said the other remedies were ineffective.
Yesterday's ruling leaves "a lawless vacuum," said Powell, who nevertheless agreed with the majority's interpretation of the law. "On the basis of literally centuries of the common law of contracts," said Burger, "one would have thought that the traditional notions of accountability for one's voluntary actions would govern.
"Instead, the court holds that individual workers, acting without union approval, are a special privileged class who may with impunity violate an agreement. . . ."
In another ruling yesterday, the court extended the protection against double jeopardy to the trials held to determine punishment in death penalty cases. The 5-to-4 ruling means that once prosecutors fail in efforts to get the death penalty imposed, they cannot at a second punishment trial again seek the death penalty.
The question arose as a result of the relatively new "bifurcatred" proceedings involved in capital cases. After a defendant is convicted, a separate hearing or trial must be held before the same jury to determine whether the defendant will die.
Robert Bullock was convicted in a 1977 kidnaping murder in St. Louis County, Mo. But in the punishment phase, they jury chose a life sentence over the death sentence. Later, Bullock won a new trial on the charges. Prosecutors said they would again seek the death penalty.
Justice Harry Blackmun, reversing the Missouri Supreme Court, wrote yesterday that the punishment phase was just like a trial in almost every respect. Opening statements are made, testimony is taken, evidence is introduced. Therefore, the double jeopardy protection should cover it.
"The 'embarrassment, expense and ordeal' and the 'anxiety and insecurity' faced by a defendant at the penalty phase . . . surely are at least equivalent to that faced by any defendant at the guilt phase of a criminal trial," Blackmun wrote.
Justice Powell, joined by Burger, and Justice Byron White and Rehnquist, dissented, saying that the ruling deviated from previous court decisions denying double jeopardy protection to sentencing.
In other action yesterday, the court agreed to consider whether the children of illegal aliens are entitled to free public education. The justices will review a Texas ruling barring the charging of tuition to such students.