United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO v. Sadlowski
Decided on June 14, 1982; 457 US 102

Union rule prohibiting non-member campaign donations is challenged by union members


A. Issues Discussed: Governmental Authority (union), 1st Amendment, Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a rule restricting non-union campaign contributions in union elections violate the First Amendment or the rights of union members protected by Congress in the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959?

A. Background:

In 1978, petitioner, the United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO, adopted a rule prohibiting candidates running for union offices from accepting campaign contributions from people who are not members of the union. The union also created a committee with final decision-making power to enforce the "outsider rule."

Respondent, Edward Sadlowski, was a member of the United Steelworkers of America.  He had previously lost a 1977 election for union office in which most of his financial support came from outside sources prior to the new rule adoption.  Sadlowski and other union members brought a suit against petitioner in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia claiming that the "outsider rule" violated §101(a)(4) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA), which forbids unions from limiting the rights of its members to institute an action in any court or agency. The District Court ruled in favor of the respondents.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the lower court's finding that the "outsider rule" was not protected by §101(a)(2)’s provision giving a union the authority to create "reasonable" rules regarding the responsibilities of members and that it was in violation of the "freedom of speech and assembly" provision of LMRDA §101(a)(2), which gives all union members the right to freely assemble with other members and to express views about candidates at union meetings. The United Steelworkers of America filed a petition for certiorari and the United States Supreme Court granted the petition to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:

Opposing Side
Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. argued the cause for respondents. Michael H. Gottesman argued the cause for petitioner.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Charles S. Sims filed a brief of amici curiae for the American Civil Liberties Union urging affirmance. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Petitioner.

"At the outset, we address respondents' contention that this case can be resolved simply by reference to First Amendment law. Respondents claim that §101(a)(2) confers upon union members rights equivalent to the rights established by the First Amendment…

[H]istory reveals that Congress modeled Title I after the Bill of Rights, and that the legislators intended §101(a)(2) to restate a principal First Amendment value - the right to speak one's mind without fear of reprisal. However, there is absolutely no indication that Congress intended the scope of §101(a)(2) to be identical to the scope of the First Amendment. Rather, Congress' decision to include a proviso covering 'reasonable' rules refutes that proposition…

To determine whether a union rule is valid under the statute, we first consider whether the rule interferes with an interest protected by the first part of §101(a)(2). If it does, we then determine whether the rule is 'reasonable' and thus sheltered by the proviso to §101(a)(2)…

Applying this form of analysis here, we conclude that the outsider rule is valid. Although it may limit somewhat the ability of insurgent union members to wage an effective campaign, an interest deserving some protection under the statute, it is rationally related to the union's legitimate interest in reducing outsider interference with union affairs…

Although the outsider rule may implicate rights protected by §101(a)(2), it serves a legitimate purpose that is clearly protected under the statute. The union adopted the rule because it wanted to ensure that nonmembers do not unduly influence union affairs…

The language of the rule contains no reference to litigation. In addition, the debates leading up to the passage of the rule do not contain any indication that the union intended the rule to apply in this context. But what is most persuasive, the Campaign Contribution Administrative Committee - which was given authority to make final and binding interpretations of the outsider rule - has issued an opinion concerning the impact of the outsider rule on the right to sue. In this opinion, it holds that 'the limitations imposed by Section 27 do not apply to the financing of lawsuits by non-members for the purpose of asserting the legal rights of candidates or other union members in connection with elections.'

We hold that USWA's [United Steelworkers of America] rule prohibiting candidates for union office from accepting campaign contributions from nonmembers does not violate §101(a)(2). Although it may interfere with rights Congress intended to protect, it is rationally related to a legitimate and protected purpose, and thus is sheltered by the proviso to §101(a)(2). We reverse the decision below and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Marshall, T. Con (wrote majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con (joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (joined dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (joined dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed a brief of amici curiae urging affirmance. The US Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.