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By Laura D. Francis
Oct. 2 — Caterpillar Inc. must allow a United Steelworkers investigator into a Wisconsin facility to examine the site of a fatal workplace accident, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held Oct. 2, affirming a National Labor Relations Board order (Caterpillar Inc. v. NLRB, 7th Cir., No. 14-3528, 10/2/15).
The union's right to represent its employees vastly outweighs Caterpillar's interest in protecting its property rights, the appeals court said. Caterpillar's attorney acknowledged that allowing the investigator to conduct an on-site investigation would cause “no actual harm” to the company, the court said, whereas the investigator could uncover the yet-unknown cause of the accident, leading to changes that would reduce the chances of a future accident.
“We can't exclude the possibility that the company's unexplained, unjustified refusal of access to [USW investigator Sharon] Thompson was intended not only to prevent the union from investigating safety issues and perhaps discovering negligence by Caterpillar but also to demonstrate to its employees that the union can do nothing to enhance their safety,” Judge Richard A. Posner wrote for the court. “The union's duty to attend to the safety of the employees whom it represents entitles it to insist on performing its own investigation of safety issues, rather than relying entirely on data given it by the company.”
Judge David F. Hamilton joined the majority opinion.
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