Steele v. Louisville & N.R. Co.
Decided on Dec. 18, 1944; 323 US 192


A. Issues Discussed: Racial discrimination

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the Railway Labor Act impose on a labor organization, acting by authority of the statute as the exclusive bargaining representative of a craft or class of railway employees, the duty to represent all the employees in the craft without discrimination because of their race, and, if so, whether the courts have jurisdiction to protect the minority of the craft or class from the violation of such obligation?


A. Background:

"Petitioner, a Negro, is a locomotive fireman in the employ of respondent railroad, suing on his own behalf and that of his fellow employees who, like petitioner, are Negro firemen employed by the Railroad. Respondent Brotherhood, a labor organization, is, as provided under 2, Fourth of the Railway Labor Act, the exclusive bargaining representative of the craft of firemen employed by the Railroad and is recognized as such by it and the members of the craft.

On March 28, 1940, the Brotherhood, purporting to act as representative of the entire craft of firemen, without informing the Negro firemen or giving them opportunity to be heard, served a notice on respondent Railroad [which] announced the Brotherhood's desire to amend the existing collective bargaining agreement in such manner as ultimately to exclude all Negro firemen from the service... [O]nly white firemen [could] be promoted to serve as engineers, and the notice proposed that only 'promotable', i.e., white, men should be employed as firemen or assigned to new runs or jobs or permanent vacancies in established runs or jobs.

Until April 8, 1941, petitioner was in a 'passenger pool...' These jobs were highly desirable in point of wages, hours and other considerations. Petitioner had performed and was performing his work satisfactorily. Following a reduction in the mileage covered by the pool, all jobs in the pool were, about April 1, 1941, declared vacant. The Brotherhood and the Railroad, acting under the agreement, disqualified all the Negro firemen and replaced them with four white men, members of the Brotherhood, all junior in seniority to petitioner and no more competent or worthy. As a consequence petitioner was deprived of employment for sixteen days and then was assigned to more arduous, longer, and less remunerative work in local freight service. In conformity to the agreement, he was later replaced by a Brotherhood member junior to him, and assigned work on a switch engine, which was still harder and less remunerative, until January 3, 1942. On that date, after the bill of complaint in the present suit had been filed, he was reassigned to passenger service.

Protests and appeals of petitioner and his fellow Negro firemen, addressed to the Railroad and the Brotherhood, in an effort to secure relief and redress, have been ignored... The Supreme Court of Alabama took jurisdiction of the cause but held on the merits that petitioner's complaint stated no cause of action... It construed the statute, not as creating the relationship of principal and agent between the members of the craft and the Brotherhood, but as conferring on the Brotherhood plenary authority to treat with the Railroad and enter into contracts fixing rates of pay and working conditions for the craft as a whole without any legal obligation or duty to protect the rights of minorities from discrimination or unfair treatment, however gross. Consequently it held that neither the Brotherhood nor the Railroad violated any rights of petitioner or his fellow Negro employees by negotiating the contracts discriminating against them. "

On certiorari the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Mr. Charles H. Houston, of Washington, DC, for petitioner. Mr. Charles H. Eyster, of Decatur, Ala., for respondent Louisville and N.R. Co

Mr. James A. Simpson, of Birmingham, Ala., for respondents Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen et al.


"1) The fair interpretation of the statutory language is that the organization chosen to represent a craft is to represent all its members, the majority as well as the minority, and it is to act for and not against those whom it represents... It is enough for present purposes to say that the statutory power to represent a craft and to make contracts as to wages, hours and working conditions does not include the authority to make among members of the craft discriminations not based on such relevant differences. Here the discriminations based on race alone are obviously irrelevant and invidious. Congress plainly did not undertake to authorize the bargaining representative to make such discriminations.

2) Further, since 3, First (c), [of the Railway Labor Act] permits the national labor organizations chosen by the majority of the crafts to 'prescribe the rules under which the labor members of the Adjustment Board shall be selected' and to 'select such members and designate the division on which each member shall serve', the Negro firemen would be required to appear before a group which is in large part chosen by the respondents against whom their real complaint is made... There is no administrative means by which the Negro firemen can secure separate representation for the purposes of collective bargaining... In the absence of any available administrative remedy, the right here asserted, to a remedy for breach of the statutory duty of the bargaining representative to represent and act for the members of a craft, is of judicial cognizance."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • Stone, H.Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Murphy, F. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Roberts, O. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Jackson, R. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rutledge, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Frankfurter, F. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Reed, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU, as counsel of record, urged reversal of the judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama; the Supreme Court reversed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.