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Court: 2-member board could affirm ruling

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that a northern Indiana steel company must recognize a collective bargaining agreement between the union and the company.

In New Process Steel, L.P., v. National Labor Relations Board, Nos. 08-3517, 08-3518, 08-3709, and 08-3859, the 7th Circuit consolidated the separate appeals by New Process Steel and the National Labor Relations Board following the board's conclusion New Process and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, AFL-CIO, had enacted a valid collective bargaining agreement.

Union members had to vote on a new collective bargaining agreement with New Process. The parties mentioned the agreement needing to be ratified, but New Process never specified what that process should entail. Based on union bylaws, if a majority of employees didn't vote to approve the contract, the union would then take a vote to strike, in which a two-thirds vote was needed. If employees didn't vote to strike, then the union would accept the contract. That happened in this case, so union representatives told New Process they had an agreement and the collective bargaining agreement was executed.

New Process then decided it wanted to resume negotiations because of complaints it received regarding how the first agreement was accepted. The company also announced it was withdrawing its recognition from the union after receiving a decertification petition.

An administrative law judge found the company had to accept the union contract. The National Labor Relations Board affirmed and also ordered the company to deal with the union as the bargaining representative of the employees.

A key issue in the appeal is whether the board was able to affirm the decision of the ALJ because only two members of the five-member board voted. Statute allows a smaller, three-member panel to have authority to rule on issues, and also allows for two members to constitute a quorum if the third person is unavailable. Due to the expiration of term limits and board vacancies, the vote was made only by the two-person quorum.

The issue of whether the NLRB can proceed with the two-person quorum is pending in several circuits at this time, wrote Judge Joel Flaum. The plain meaning of the statute supports the board's delegation procedure and it had authority to hear the labor dispute in this case and to issue orders regarding the unfair labor practices claim and New Process' withdrawal of recognition of the union, wrote the judge.

The 7th Circuit affirmed the validity of the collective bargaining agreement. New Process argued the agreement was never ratified as they requested; however, the company never specified what ratification meant and the method to be used. The board's conclusion that New Process can't refuse to recognize the contract because the union didn't follow the company's definition of ratification has a reasonable basis in law. New Process can't insist on any particular method of ratification.

The appellate judges also dismissed New Process' argument that because they believed ratification meant one thing and the union believed it meant another method, there was no "meeting of the minds" and thus, no contract. But because the parties didn't negotiate the meaning of ratification or the method to use, the union was free to decide what method to employ.

Lastly, the 7th Circuit affirmed the board's order forcing New Process to recognize the union as the valid collective bargaining representative for the plant employees. Because the agreement was valid, the company couldn't withdraw recognition from the union.

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