Union Steward Superseniority


Over 40 percent of all labor contracts currently in force contain special provisions granting employee grievance representatives preference in seniority rights. Although such special rights are usually narrow in scope, restricted in their application to layoff and recall privileges, roughly one-third of these provisions, appearing in some 14 percent of all labor agreements, provide superseniority for union stewards as to a number of additional privileges which seniority rights may encompass: promotions, work-shift selection, overtime assignment, and/or choice of vacation period. Among the contract models which include such broad steward superseniority provisions is the Central States Area Supplement to the Teamsters’ National Master Freight Agreement, which governs the employment of over-the-road truck drivers in 16 states.

Although the precise origins of superseniority clauses are unclear, such provisions have been widely accepted since their advent in the 1930’s. Unions seek these clauses, which transfer employment prerogatives from the rank- and-file to stewards, in order to maintain the continuity of union leadership, to protect the operation of the grievance resolution procedure, and to shield union representatives from discriminatory treatment at the hands of management.

In Dairylea Cooperative Inc., however, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declared that broad steward superseniority clauses-those not limited to layoff and recall benefits–are presumptively unlawful. The decision was enforced by the Second Circuit in NLRB v. Teamsters Local 338. Such clauses must therefore be supported by legitimate and substantial business justifications in order to be upheld. Dairylea was followed by a host of NLRB Advice Memoranda, Complaints, and Administrative Law Judge rulings on the superseniority issue. Recently, this evolving area of law has taken a newtack, with Board decisions distinguishing Dairyleaand permitting a slight ex-tension in permissible superseniority under special conditions. 1 3 However, if the general thrust of the Dairylea line of cases is followed, labor organizationswill soon witness court-dictated changes in the provisions of great numbers ofcollective bargaining contracts.

This Note will discuss the legality of broad steward superseniority clauses from three different perspectives: (1) an historical analysis in terms of prior relevant decisions and the union duty of fair representation; (2) a discussion within the framework of required justification as established by the NLRB and the Second Circuit; and (3) a presentation of an authorizing theory which holds the grant of superseniority privileges to be within the bounds of permissible union discretion. Consideration will then be given to the related issue of whether non-steward union officials may partake in superseniority privileges.

Suggested Reading

From the 2016 Symposium: Dishwashers, Domestic Workers, and Day Laborers: Can Alternative Organizing Revive the Labor Movement? Panel II: Friend or Foe: Labor Law and Non-Union Workers March 25, 2016 Wilma B. Liebman[1]             Is the Depression-era National Labor Relations

Transcript of panel discussion presenting different views about the impact of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 on labor unions and their members.