Illinois Court Allows Boss’ Self-Serving Interpretation of Bylaws to Stand

The Second District of the Appellate Court of Illinois ruled May 3 that a temporary special dues assessment levied by United Food & Commercial Workers Int’l Union Local 881 to pay picketers at nonunion grocery stores was in compliance with local union’s bylaws. The court rejected a challenge by union members Mitchell Diamond and Amy Weltlich, who maintained that the bylaws required a majority of the 35,000 local members to approve the assessment. Instead, the court held that Local 881 president Ronald E. Powell’s self-serving “interpretation” of the rules as requiring only a majority of those members who actually voted, was reasonable, and consequently, decisive.

The local, based in Westchester, Ill., began the “LEAD campaign” in 1991 to picket nonunion grocery stores in Ill. and N. Ind. The local’s executive board approved a $155.88 assessment over 18 months on its members to finance the campaign, and submitted the matter to a vote. Notice of the vote was sent out to members and publicized in the local’s newsletter. Votes were held at 21 meetings across the local’s geographical operation area. Of the 35,000 local members, only 2,035 attended the meetings. The assessment was approved by a vote of 1,169 to 818.

The local bylaws allowed for the levy of special dues assessments “by the Local Union by a majority vote by secret ballot of the members.” They provided, more generally, that unless otherwise provided for in the bylaws, “all matters calling for a vote shall be determined by a majority of the active members present and voting on the question.” The bylaws also gave the local’s president the authority “to interpret the bylaws and rules of the Local Union.” Powell testified at trial that he interpreted the bylaws to require only that a majority of those voting approve an assessment, and that this interpretation was consistent with both the UFCW constitution and federal law.

A labor organization’s constitution and bylaws constitute a contract between that organization and its members, Justice R. Peter Grometer wrote for the court, and the court upheld the “contract” because the interpretation was not “arbitrary” or “unreasonable.”  Justices John J. Bowman and Frederick J. Kapala concur in the opinion.  Paul M. Weltlich of Lawrence, Kamin, Saunders & Uhlenhop L.L.C., Chicago, represented the Diamond and Weltlich. Jairus M. Gilden, of Karmel & Gilden, Chicago, represented the local. [BNA 5/13/02]