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City of San Jose v. Operating Engineers: Public Agencies Must Usually Seek Relief From PERB And Not The Courts When A Threatened Strike Will Endanger Public Welfare

This morning, in City of San Jose v. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, the California Supreme Court held that a public employer must generally first seek relief from the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) before asking a superior court for injunctive relief when the employer believes that a threatened strike may endanger the public welfare.The Court noted that the Legislature expressly vested initial jurisdiction over claims of unfair labor practices arising under the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (MMBA) with PERB. Because the Court felt that a public entity’s claim that a threatened employee strike is illegal will generally constitute an unfair labor practice claim, PERB would have initial jurisdiction.

The Court explained that PERB has initial jurisdiction over a claim by a public entity that a strike by its employees is illegal, and thus the public entity must exhaust its administrative remedies with PERB prior to seeking judicial relief unless one of the recognized exceptions to the exhaustion doctrine applied. The Court set forth some of these exceptions, including inadequate remedy, too slow an administrative procedure to be effective, irreparable harm would result by requiring exhaustion and pursuing administrative remedies would be futile. The Court held that none of these exceptions applied in this particular case.

The case arose in connection with negotiations over a new labor contract between the City of San Jose and Operating Engineers Local 3. The prior labor contract had expired on April 14, 2006. On May 30, 2006, Operating Engineers gave the City 72 hours notice that work stoppages could occur any time after June 2. The City responded that it would seek a court order by June 2 prohibiting any strike or work stoppage by Union members performing services essential to public health and safety. On May 31, the Union filed with PERB an unfair labor practice charge alleging that the City’s threatened court action interfered with its members rights to participate in Union activities, interfered with the Union’s right to represent its members and breached the City’s obligation to meet and confer in good faith. On June 1, the City filed a complaint in Superior Court seeking to enjoin 110 identified employees from engaging in any work stoppage because such action would endanger public health and safety. Both the Union and PERB opposed the City’s request for injunctive relief. The Superior Court denied the City’s request for failing to first seek relief from PERB, ruling that PERB had exclusive initial jurisdiction over the matter. The Court of Appeal agreed and the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Among other contentions, the City argued that the “local concern” doctrine should apply in cases involving strikes by public employees whose services are essential to public welfare, thereby vesting courts with exclusive jurisdiction over such cases. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, explaining that the local concern doctrine applied generally in cases where it was necessary to maintain civil order, and applied primarily when the subject of the action was peripheral to the labor dispute or when a judicial decision did not present a substantial danger of interfering with an administrative agency’s labor decision. The Court pointed out that there was no evidence that a strike posed an immediate threat to civil order and the primary issue of the legality of the public employee strike went to the essence of labor law.

Whether a public entity must await PERB’s adjudication of an unfair labor practice complaint before seeking judicial relief depends upon the facts of each case. PERB has adopted regulations setting forth procedures of how injunctive relief can be requested, under which PERB must act in 24 to 120 hours. (8 Cal. Code Regs. §§ 32450-32470). Here, the Union had given the City at least 72 hours’ notice of the possibility of a strike, thus there was sufficient time for the City to ask PERB for injunctive relief and for PERB to decide whether to apply for such relief in court.

The California Supreme Court concluded that labor disputes asserting unfair labor practices under the MMBA should, whenever possible, be submitted first to PERB rather than to a court. And, if an agency claims an exception to the doctrine of exhaustion of remedies in connection with a public employee strike, the trial court should afford due deference to PERB and issue injunctive relief only when it is clearly shown that PERB’s remedy would be inadequate.

Meyers Nave routinely advises public agencies on labor relations matters including representing public agencies in court, before PERB, and grievance and interest arbitrations. For more information about City of San Jose v. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 or other labor relations issues, contact Eddie Kreisberg at 800.464.3559.