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National Labor Relations Board v. General Electric Co.

decided: October 28, 1969.


Waterman, Friendly and Kaufman, Circuit Judges. Waterman C. J. (concurring). Friendly, C. J. (concurring and dissenting).

Author: Kaufman


Almost ten years after the events that gave rise to this controversy, we are called upon to determine whether an employer may be guilty of bad faith bargaining, though he reaches an agreement with the union, albeit on the company's terms. We must also decide if the company committed three specific violations of the duty to bargain by failing to furnish information requested by the union, by attempting to deal separately with IUE locals, and by presenting a personal accident insurance program on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.


The Prior Proceedings

In the wake of what it regarded as unsatisfactory negotiations with the General Electric Company (GE) during the summer and fall of 1960, the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, AFL-CIO (IUE) filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The General Counsel, on April 12, 1961, filed a complaint alleging that GE had committed unfair labor practices in violation of sections 8(a)(1), 8(a) (3), and 8(a)(5) of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 158(a)(1), 158(a)(3), and 158(a)(5) (1964). Hearings were held before a trial examiner between July, 1961, and January, 1963, and included testimony, oral argument, and submission of briefs. The Trial Examiner issued his Intermediate Report on April 1, 1963, which found GE guilty of several unfair labor practices. GE and the IUE filed exceptions to the Intermediate Report, and on December 16, 1964, the NLRB agreed with the Trial Examiner. 150 NLRB 192 (1964).

There followed the race to the courthouse that is an unhappy feature too often encountered in these matters. See Carrington, Crowded Dockets and the Courts of Appeals: The Threat to the Function of Review and the National Law, 82 Harv. L. Rev. 542, 598-600 (1969). Since GE does business in every state, every court of appeals has jurisdiction, if GE's petition for review is first filed there. See 29 U.S.C. § 160(f) (1964); 28 U.S.C. § 2112 (1964). The IUE claimed that it filed in the District of Columbia Circuit 14 seconds before GE handed its petition to the clerk in the Seventh Circuit. GE's version of course differed. The NLRB, admitting its confusion (not without reason, it would seem), suggested that since the question of timing was incapable of rational solution, the Second Circuit, where the unfair labor practices complained of occurred, would be the logical place to begin. The District of Columbia and Seventh Circuits agreed. IUE v. NLRB, 120 U.S. App. D.C. 45, 343 F.2d 327 (1965); GE v. NLRB, 58 LRRM 2694 (7th Cir. 1965). Another year was required to determine that the Union's proper status in the action was that of intervenor. NLRB v. General Electric Co., 59 LRRM 2094, 2095 (2d Cir. 1965), vacated and remanded, IUE v. NLRB, 382 U.S. 366, 86 S. Ct. 528, 15 L. Ed. 2d 420 (1966), modified on remand, NLRB v. General Electric Co., 358 F.2d 292 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 385 U.S. 898, 87 S. Ct. 201, 17 L. Ed. 2d 130 (1966). See International Union, Local 283, etc. v. Scofield, 382 U.S. 205, 86 S. Ct. 373, 15 L. Ed. 2d 272 (1965).

In order for the action to reach its present state of ripeness, this court consolidated GE's petition for review (No. 29576) with the Board's petition for enforcement (No. 29502). NLRB v. General Electric Co., 358 F.2d 292 (2d Cir. 1966), cert. denied, 385 U.S. 898, 87 S. Ct. 201, 17 L. Ed. 2d 130 (1966). Another year and a half passed while the parties attempted to settle the case without recourse to further litigation. When a satisfactory settlement proved too elusive, they reentered the fray with renewed vigor, undiminished by the passage of time, two successive collective bargaining contracts (1963 and 1966), and by another suit over proper representation arising out of the 1966 negotiations. McLeod v. General Electric Co., 257 F. Supp. 690 (S.D.N.Y.), rev'd 366 F.2d 847 (2d Cir. 1966), remanded 385 U.S. 533, 87 S. Ct. 637, 17 L. Ed. 2d 588 (1967). See also General Electric Co. v. NLRB, 412 F.2d 512 (2d Cir., 1969).


The Bargaining Background

General Electric, a New York corporation, is the largest and perhaps best known manufacturer of electrical equipment, appliances, and the like. Its products -- manufactured in all the 50 states -- range from refrigerators to atomic energy plants, from submarines to light bulbs. In 1960, it employed about 250,000 men and women; of these only 120,000 were unionized. The IUE is an international union, affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and had a total membership of about 300,000. In 1960 it represented some 70,000 of the 120,000 unionized GE employees, formally grouped in more than 105 bargaining units, and was far and away the largest single union with whom GE dealt. The next largest, the United Electrical Workers (UE), represented only 10,000 members, and the remaining 50,000 unionized employees were split among some 100-odd other unions or bargaining agents who dealt independently with GE. A high proportion of GE employees are supervisory or managerial personnel, who are available to the company in the event of a strike.

The present action has its roots deep in the history of prior negotiations and bargaining relationships. Before 1950, the major union was the UE. In 1946, negotiations reached an impasse and resulted in a serious and crippling strike. GE eventually capitulated, and agreed to a settlement that it later characterized as a "debacle," and beyond the company's ability to meet.

GE's response came in the form of a new approach to employee relations, urged by one of its vice presidents, Lemuel R. Boulware. Although GE generally objects to use of the term, describing it as a "hostile label," the tactic of "Boulwareism" associated with his name soon became the hallmark of the company's entire attitude towards its employees.*fn1

In many respects, GE's negotiating policy after the 1946 strike followed a predictable course. The Company had been concerned over the antipathy many of the employees displayed during the strike. It decided that it was no longer enough to act in a manner that it thought becoming for a "good" employer; it had to insure that the employees recognized and appreciated the Company's efforts in their behalf. The problems was perceived as a failure to apply GE's highly successful consumer product merchandising techniques to the employment relations field.

The new plan was threefold. GE began by soliciting comments from its local management personnel on the desires of the work force, and the type and level of benefits that they expected. These were then translated into specific proposals, and their cost and effectiveness researched, in order to formulate a "product" that would be attractive to the employees, and within the Company's means. The last step was the most important, most innovative, and most often criticized. GE took its "product" -- now a series of fully-formed bargaining proposals -- and "sold" it to its employees and the general public. Through a veritable avalanche of publicity, reaching awesome proportions prior to and during negotiations, GE sought to tell its side of the issues to its employees. It described its proposals as a "fair, firm offer," characteristic of its desire to "do right voluntarily," without the need for any union pressure or strike. In negotiations, GE announced that it would have nothing to do with the "blood-and-threat-and-thunder" approach, in which each side presented patently unreasonable demands, and finally chose a middle ground that both knew would be the probable outcome even before the beginning of the bargaining. The Company believed that such tactics diminished the company's credibility in the eyes of its employees, and at the same time appeared to give the union credit for wringing from the Company what it had been willing to offer all along. Henceforth GE would hold nothing back when it made its offer to the Union; it would take all the facts into consideration, and make that offer it thought right under all the circumstances. Though willing to accept Union suggestions based on facts the Company might have overlooked, once the basic outlines of the proposal had been set, the mere fact that the Union disagreed would be no ground for change. When GE said firm, it meant firm, and it denounced the traditional give and take of the so-called auction bargaining as "flea bitten eastern type of cunning and dishonest but pointless haggling."

To bring its position home to its employees, GE utilized a vast network of plant newspapers, bulletins, letters, television and radio announcements, and personal contacts through management personnel.

Side by side with its policies of "doing right voluntarily" through a "firm, fair offer," GE also pursued a policy of guaranteeing uniformity among unions, and between union and non-union employees. Thus all unions received substantially the same offer, and unrepresented employees were assured that they would gain nothing through representation that they would not have had in any case. Prior to 1960, GE held up its proposed benefits for unrepresented employees until the unions agreed, or until the old contract with the Union expired.

The IUE split off from the UE in 1950, when the UE was expelled from the CIO for alleged Communist domination. Since 1950, the IUE and GE have bargained on a multi-unit basis, despite the presence of separate unit certifications for IUE locals. The pattern was continued in successive 1951, 1952, 1954, and 1955 renewal contracts. In practice, the IUE has dealt with the company through its General Electric Conference Board, composed of delegates elected from IUE locals. Under the Union constitution, the Conference Board may call strikes, make contract proposals, and conclude agreements, regardless of an individual local's consent. GE has dealt with, and recognized the status of, the Conference Board since 1950, although the national agreements frequently provided that some matters, usually minor, would be left to local agreement.

The 1955 Contract, which was to run for five years, contained a provision allowing the Union to reopen in 1958, solely on the issue of employment security. The union did so, but was unable either to gain concessions from the Company, or to elicit enough support for a strike.


The 1960 Negotiations

Under the 1955 Contract, the earliest date that either party could compel the beginning of negotiations was August 16, 1960, 45 days before the end of the contract. Both sides, however, were anxious to take at least some preliminary steps before they were required to.

The IUE set up a loose alliance with several other AFL-CIO unions who bargained with GE, and they jointly polled their members on proposals. Before the actual beginning of formal negotiations, the IUE also began preparing its members through information about some of the possible demands that appeared likely to be presented to GE.

Since the linchpin of the "Boulware approach" was to bring GE's side of the story home to its employees and to the general public, it began in the latter part of 1959 to advise its Employment Relations Managers of the subjects that they should be prepared to discuss with employees. This was effected through various media, including plant publications and personal contact. General arguments in favor of keeping GE competitive through low costs, and the advantage of receiving GE benefits without having to wait for Union officials to approve them, were among the suggestions presented.

Informal meetings were first held in January, 1960, and Union and Company subsequently joined in preparing a body of information. Neither side felt any inclination to complain of want of cooperation at this stage. GE, in fact, took pains to suggest alternate information when the precise form the Union desired was unavailable.

Before another planned informal meeting in June, 1960, GE notified the IUE by letter that as of July it would institute a contributory group accident and life insurance plan for all employees, but if the Union objected, only unrepresented employees would receive the benefits. The Union protested that the Company had to bargain before making such a unilateral change, but GE insisted that the 1955 IUE-GE Pension and Insurance agreement waived all such requirements. The Union still objected, and the program was put into effect only for unrepresented employees.

At the June meeting, the Union stated its proposals, as they then stood. Without much discussion, other than some minor clarifications, Philip D. Moore, GE's Union Relations Service Manager and chief negotiator, called the proposals "astronomical" in cost, "ridiculous," and not designed for early settlement.

Following the presentation of these proposals, the early publicity phase of the Boulware approach swung into high gear. Employing virtually all media, from television and radio, to newspaper, plant publications and personal contact, the Company urged employees and the public to regard the Union demands as "astronomical" (then and later a favored Company term), and likely to cost many GE employees their jobs through increased foreign competition. GE, on the other hand, announced it would in time make a fair and "firm" offer that would give employees no reason to allow union leadership to impose a strike. The basic theme was that the Company, and not the Union, was the best guardian and protector of the employees' interests.

The IUE also tried its hand at publicity, including an "IUE Caravan" that travelled from city to city, and occasional articles in the International Union's newspaper. In scope and effectiveness, however, they were far outshadowed by the Company's massive campaign.

From July 19 to August 11, the Union presented its specific proposals on employment security, to which the Company replied with general expressions of disapproval, or simply rejected. GE spent the next five meetings delivering prepared presentations on the general causes of economic instability, which the Union branded as a waste of time.

In subsequent meetings, the Company's posture remained unchanged. It would comment generally on some Union demands, and consider them in formulating its offer, but would not commit itself in any way. While it complained that the IUE proposals were excessive, it replied to Union requests for cost estimates with "we talk about the level of benefits," or that the proposals cost "a lot." GE would not indicate the total cost of a settlement it considered reasonable ("we talk level of benefits"); the Union in turn refused to rank its demands by priority, describing them all as "musts." Indeed the entire early period -- and the later negotiations as well -- were characterized by an air of rancor on both sides, which provided each with welcome opportunities to downgrade the other in communications to Union members.

GE finally revealed its own proposal informally on August 29. While expressing distress at some features of the offer, Union negotiators urged the Company to delay publicizing its "firm, fair" offer, so that its position would not be frozen before the IUE had an opportunity to examine it and offer changes. GE refused, agreeing only to hold up most of the prepared and packaged publicity until after formal presentation of the offer on the next day.

Union officials frequently renewed their requests for cost information during the ensuing month of negotiations. GE consistently refused to estimate the cost of its proposal or any of its elements, so that the Union might reallocate its demands. When pressed for some of the highly-touted GE cost studies, Moore frequently slipped into the "level of benefits" format, and generally showed no interest in presenting alternate information that was available and would have served the Union's needs.

There were few modifications made in the original GE offer. The Company did propose an extra week's vacation after 25 years in exchange for a smaller wage increase; but Union officials had indicated at the outset that they were uninterested in paring down what they considered an already inadequate wage offer. Despite this, and in the face of the departure by Union officials for their national conference, GE publicized the "new" offer heavily in employee communications.

After declaring late in September that the "whole offer" was "on the table," GE contrary to prior practice, brought its position home by making its three per cent wage increase offer effective for unrepresented employees before the end of the contract or IUE acceptance. Two days later GE also put its pension and insurance proposals into effect, despite IUE President James Carey's complaint that this would "inhibit" any subsequent modifications.

On September 21, Federal Mediation Service officials began to sit in on the negotiations at the request of the Union. Their presence does not appear to have measurably aided the negotiations. The Union, in response to Company complaints that the IUE proposals were too costly, submitted a written request for information on the cost per employee of the GE pension and insurance plans, as well as the number of employees who could be expected to benefit from GE's vacation and income extension proposals. The request was refused in part, and the remainder was not complied with until after the strike, when the information would be of no substantial value to the Union.

Similar difficulties confronted the Union in its efforts to change the effective date of the pension and insurance plans. The Company proposed a January 1 date for the first increase in pension and insurance benefits; the Union in turn suggested that the increase in benefits should coincide with the beginning of the contract. GE shifted its ground back and forth: first it claimed that the earlier date would be too costly; then it said that it was talking "level of benefits" and not cost; then it argued that prior contracts had always provided for pension increases on the first of the year. When this last ground proved to be incorrect, one GE negotiator promised to "consider" the October date, although he insisted the January date was "appropriate." During that afternoon, however, even this concession was withdrawn, and later explanations included describing January again as "appropriate," and "the time that you make all the resolutions for the New Year."*fn2

Union officials complained that "it is just because we request something that you would refuse to give it," and subsequent Company explanations served to support, rather than to undercut, this feeling. On September 28, with three scheduled meetings left before the end of the contract, a Union negotiator, seeking to salvage something of the earlier IUE Supplemental Unemployment Benefits proposal, suggested a local option plan under which some of the funds the Company had allocated to wage increases and its income extension offer could be diverted to supplement unemployment compensation. He was clear that nothing was to be added to the Company's costs. Moore responded, "After all our month of bargaining and after telling the employees before they went to vote that this is it, we would look ridiculous to change it at this late date; and secondly the answer is no." A few moments later Moore reiterated his belief that "we would look ridiculous if we changed it." Hilbert, for GE, later gave three reasons why the Company would not consider the proposal -- and two of them were that it would make GE "look foolish in the eyes of employees and others. . . ."

GE on September 29 rejected a Union offer to maintain the status quo under the old contract until a new one was signed, specifically refusing the cost-of-living escalator clause, and stating that it would "consider" later Union-related terms such as dues checkoff. A strike (which took place on October 2, except for the Schenectady Local, which joined October 6) was clearly imminent. Although claiming to be uncertain about truce terms with national IUE negotiators, GE headquarters on September 29 authorized its Schenectady Employee Relations Manager, Stevens, to offer all the pre- existing terms of the contract (except for the cost-of-living term) to the local. Stevens did so in statements to Union members and to the local Business Agent, Jandreau. A similar offer was made to the Pittsfield local, and broadly publicized there.

By October 10, the Company (after the Union had filed an unfair labor practice charge) made the same offer to the Union's national negotiators, for any locals that returned to work. Despite rejection by the Union at the national level, the Company proceeded to deal directly with local officials, and to urge acceptance of the offer. When local officials demurred, as, for example, at Lynn, Massachusetts, publicity was aimed at the employees themselves, criticizing the local officials' stand on the "truce." Similar events occurred at Waterford, Louisville, Bridgeville, and Syracuse.

Throughout the course of the strike, GE communications to the employees emphasized the personal character of the Union leaders' conduct, and threatened loss of jobs to plants that returned to work late. Negotiations were held during the strike until October 19, when the Company declared that an impasse had been reached. During that period, GE refused to give the IUE definitive contract language until the Union had chosen which of the options it preferred, and until it gave its unqualified approval of the Company proposal.

On October 21, it became clear that Union capitulation was near. The Company, which had previously refused to delete the retraining provision from its offer, felt free to relax its position, and granted the Union's request to permit a local option on retraining. While refusing a joint strike settlement agreement, which both parties would sign, GE did propose a unilateral "letter of intent," indicating that it was in agreement with most of the Union settlement proposals. On October 22, the Union capitulated completely, signing a short form memorandum agreement (they had not yet seen the complete contract language to which they were agreeing), and the Company alone issued its letter of intent. The strike ended on October 24.

Two matters were left open for settlement: seniority for transferred employees, and dues checkoffs. Neither, when finally settled, represented more than an adjustment to take account of NLRB decisions that rendered the original form of the agreement of dubious legality. Some minor changes also followed, none of any considerable significance.

The only other events of importance occurred at the Augusta, Georgia plant. On October 5, the plant manager sent a letter to the four employees on strike (at that time the only ones), warning them that their employment would be terminated and replacements hired if they did not return to work. On October 13, however, he sent them telegrams, retracting the earlier letter as to job termination, but indicating the replacements would be hired. More employees (twenty in all) joined the strike after October 5, and on October 24 the Company refused their unconditional offer to return to work. It did, however, give physical examinations to three of the employees, and rehired the two who passed.


The Specific Unfair Labor Practices

A. Unilateral Insurance Proposal.

On June 1, 1960, before the reopening of negotiations, but after GE had agreed to meet with the Union on June 13 to hear its proposals, the Company notified the Union by letter that it would unilaterally institute a personal accident insurance proposal. Under the Company plan, the insurance would go into effect on July 1, would be paid wholly by the employees, and would be in addition to existing insurance coverage provided by GE. If the IUE objected, GE would not offer the insurance to its members; it would, however, make it available to other employees regardless of the stand taken by the IUE.

Prior to the June 13 meeting, GE publicized the new insurance proposal, along with the information that enrollment would take place later in the month. At the meeting, the Union objected strenuously to GE's failure to bargain over the insurance, claiming that it was clearly a bargainable issue, which GE had a duty to discuss with Union representatives.

Ordinarily, the matter would be relatively simple; it appears well settled that insurance is a mandatory subject for collective bargaining, and the employer violates section 8(a)(5) of the National Labor Relations Act by refusing to bargain over it. See NLRB v. General Motors Corp., 179 F.2d 221 (2d Cir. 1950); Inland Steel Co. v. NLRB, 170 F.2d 247, 12 A.L.R.2d 240 (7th Cir. 1948), cert. denied, 336 U.S. 960, 93 L. Ed. 1112, 69 S. Ct. 887 (1949) (dictum). He would, of course, also violate the Act if he unilaterally changed the conditions or terms of employment. See NLRB v. Katz, 369 U.S. 736, 8 L. Ed. 2d 230, 82 S. Ct. 1107 (1962). Here, however, both the policy of section 8(d) of the Act, and the 1955 IUE-GE Pension and Insurance Agreement (which was to remain in force until October 1, 1960) affect the issue, although it is correct that section 8(d) is not by its terms applicable. Section 8(d) provides that during the term of a collective bargaining agreement neither party need:

". . . discuss or agree to any modification of the terms and conditions contained in a contract for a fixed period, if such modification is to become effective before such terms and conditions can be reopened under the provisions of the contract." 29 U.S.C. § 158(d) (1964).

Under the 1955-1960 Pension and Insurance Agreement, each party waived the right to require the other to bargain as to pensions or insurance matters except during the stated renegotiation period -- which, barring waiver, was months off.

Read expansively, and without any attention to the purpose of the section, the combination of 8(d) and the Pension Agreement might appear to protect any action that GE might take with respect to insurance during the term of the agreement. In Equitable Life Insurance Co., 133 NLRB 1675 (1961), however, the Board took the view that 8(d) was designed to protect the status quo; it was to be used as a shield, not as a sword.

To support this view, the Board now urges that the legislative history demonstrates the primary purpose to be served by the relevant portion of 8(d) was to achieve "peaceful industrial relations" through stable collective bargaining agreements which guard "the right of either party to a contract to hold firm to the terms or conditions of employment specifically provided for in writing." 133 NLRB at 1689. See II Legislative History, LMRA 1947, at 1625.*fn3 See also NLRB v. Jacobs Mfg. Co., 196 F.2d 680, 684 (2d Cir. 1952). Indeed, a convincing reductio ad absurdum argument can be made that any other reading would construe 8(d) and the contract provision as permitting GE to make any modifications in the insurance terms that it sees fit -- for example to increase or decrease its contribution to the existing policy -- all without any consultation with or recourse for the Union. Section 8(d), the argument would run, covers "any modification," which would include a decrease in benefits. Such a construction is patently unsupportable; it would simply destroy the stability of the agreement that 8(d) is designed to protect. Moreover, viewing this as a matter of contractual interpretation, it seems highly unlikely that the Union would have ever considered such a clause.

An argument more reasonable superficially is that the Company might add to the agreement through unilateral action, but could not subtract from it. In a sense, of course, the difference is illusory. A collective bargaining agreement is a compromise not only between the parties, but of their past, present, and future goals. An insurance agreement that covers particular risks, in a specified way, impliedly rejects other risks, and other methods. Specifically, a Union may always oppose insurance plans to which its employees contribute, believing that the tax benefits of non-contributory plans to its members -- and often to the company -- in the long run will outweigh any present gains. Or, it may believe that it is important to keep insurance benefits within narrow bounds, so that at the next ...

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