Does Title VII Cover Hostile Work Environment Claims Against a Union?

A recent case against the United Auto Workers (UAW) union brought to light an underlying question of whether an employee can maintain a claim of discrimination against a union organization. Though this was not the principal issue in the case of Phillips v. UAW International, it resulted in a discussion of the language of Title VII and its applicability to unions.

Claims of race discrimination against the UAW

An employee of the MGM Grand Detroit casino claimed that she was subjected to a racially hostile work environment at the hands of the union. Specifically, she claimed that one of the union employees named three African-American union reps and stated that he would fire them all if he could; that the problem with the union was that there were too many blacks in it. The union employee also commented that they needed “to put a black person on staff to calm it down,” asking if she was interested.

Even more problematic was the claim that another union employee demanded to know the race of each union member filing a grievance, after which the grievances were separated based on whether they were “black” or “white.” Threats were even made to withdraw the grievances submitted by African-American union members.

Was the union an employer under Title VII?

The plaintiff, in this case, brought her hostile work environment claims under two separate provisions of Title VII: against the union in its capacity as an employer and in its capacity as a union. The court considered this a novel issue, as the claims of discrimination were being brought against the union in its capacity as a union as opposed to as an employer.

Only in the employer subsection of Title VII contains the specific prohibition on discrimination with respect to “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” which is also the basis of Title VII hostile work environment claims. This language is, however, absent from the union subsection. Yet, the federal appellate court found that, through statutory interpretation, it could be said that Title VII prohibits unions from creating hostile work environments, just as it does for employers.

Case ultimately dismissed for failure to establish actionable hostile work environment

The court determined that is was not necessary to make an actual finding regarding the ability to sue the union for hostile work environment because the employee failed to adequately establish a hostile work environment. The court specifically stated that the claimed comments and actions were “offensive and condemnable” but not actionable as a hostile work environment.

Judge Merritt wrote a strongly worded dissent

In his dissent, Judge Merritt pointed out that the question of whether harassment is sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to constitute a hostile work environment is a

question of fact that should be decided by a jury. In condemning the “Jim Crow-like conduct of the union agents” in this case, the judge explained as follows:

My colleagues’ treatment of the issue, not as a question of fact, but as a question of law, not only violates last year’s precedent, but precedents created over the entire 220-year history of the Seventh Amendment, requiring factual disputes in civil cases to be tried by a jury in cases at law. This is a case at law, not equity, and the jury should hear the testimony of the witnesses in accordance with the legal tradition established by our Founders. It may shield against employers, unions, and judges who may be insensitive to the rights of racial minorities in the workplace.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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