Trbovich v. Mine Workers
Decided on January 17, 1972; 404 US 528

Labor union member seeks to join Labor Secretary in suit against his union



A. Issues Discussed: Governmental Authority (Union), 14th amendment


B. Legal Question Presented: Does the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act prevent a union member from intervening in a suit initiated by the Secretary of Labor, to set aside an election of officers?


A. Background:

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA) was enacted to regulate the internal affairs of labor unions.  In this case, the Secretary of Labor brought an action under Section 402(b) of the LMRDA, to set aside an election of officers of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).  The Secretary of Labor alleged that the UMWA election was held in a manner that violated the LMRDA in numerous respects, and he sought an order requiring a new election to be held under his supervision.

Petitioner Mike Trbovich, a miner who was a member of the UMWA, sought to join the lawsuit against the UMWA.  Petitioner had originally initiated the proceeding against the UMWA by bringing the election violations to the Secretary of Labor's attention. He sought to enter the case in order to present evidence and argue in support of the Secretary of Labor's challenge of the election and to urge additional grounds for setting the election aside.

The District Court denied his motion to join the lawsuit, on the ground that the LMRDA expressly eliminated the right of union members to challenge a union election in the courts, and gave that right exclusively to the Secretary of Labor.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court opinion.  Trbovich appealed to the US Supreme Court and the high court granted certiorari to review his case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., argued the cause for petitioner.  With him on the briefs were John Silard, Elliott C. Lichtman, Joseph A.Yablonski and Clarice R. Feldman. Solicitor General Griswold argued the cause for respondent Secretary of Labor.  With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General Gray, Harry R. Sachse, Walter H. Fleischer, Raymond D. Battocchi, Richard F. Schubert, George T. Avery, and Beate Bloch.

Edward L. Carey, Harrison Combs, Willard P. Owens, Charles L. Widman and M. E. Boiarsky filed a brief for respondent United Mine Workers of America.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Opposing Side
Melvin L. Wulf and Sanford Jay Rosen filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae, urging reversal.
No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of respondent.

"With respect to litigation by union members, then, the legislative history supports the conclusion that Congress intended to prevent members from pressing claims not thought meritorious by the Secretary, and from litigating in forums or at times different from those chosen by the Secretary. Only if intervention would frustrate either of those objectives can the statute fairly be read to prohibit intervention as well as initiation of suits by members... Accordingly, we hold that in a post-election enforcement suit, Title IV imposes no bar to intervention by a union member, so long as that intervention is limited to the claims of illegality presented by the Secretary's complaint...

The Secretary contends that petitioner's only legally cognizable interest is the interest of all union members in democratic elections, and he says that interest is identical with the interest represented by the Secretary in Title IV litigation. Hence he argues that petitioner's interest must be adequately represented unless the court is prepared to find that the Secretary has failed to perform his statutory duty. We disagree.

The statute plainly imposes on the Secretary the duty to serve two distinct interests, which are related, but not identical. First, the statute gives the individual union members certain rights against their union, and 'the Secretary of Labor in effect becomes the union member's lawyer' for purposes of enforcing those rights. And second, the Secretary has an obligation to protect the 'vital public interest in assuring free and democratic union elections that transcends the narrower interest of the complaining union member.' Both functions are important, and they may not always dictate precisely the same approach to the conduct of the litigation. Even if the Secretary is performing his duties, broadly conceived, as well as can be expected, the union member may have a valid complaint about the performance of 'his lawyer.' Such a complaint, filed by the member who initiated the entire enforcement proceeding, should be regarded as sufficient to warrant relief in the form of intervention under Rule 24(a)(2). The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded to the District Court with directions to allow limited intervention in accordance with this opinion."

Held: The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.
Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 1 Con
  • Marshall, T.  Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Con (Wrote a dissenting opinion)
  • Powell, L. Took no part in the decision making process of the case
  • Rehnquist, W. Took no part in the decision making process of the case

    The ACLU filed as amicus curiae urging reversal, the US Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals judgment in a 6-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.