Can labor unions lawfully impose English literacy tests on candidates for leadership positions?
A recent case advanced by Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta suggests that any such test must at least be applied objectively and uniformly to meet the requirements of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. Acosta v. Laborers Local 872, 2017 BL 301440 (D. Nev. 2017).
A Job for the Literate
The union, located in Nevada and Arizona, has a membership that is 70 percent Latina and Latino, with about 35 percent of members speaking Spanish only. The union constitution requires that a candidate for local office “[s]hall be literate.” A separate residency provision in the constitution requires that a candidate “[s]hall be a lawful permanent resident and shall be lawfully employable under the laws of the United States and Canada.”
In April 2015, the union held elections for local officers, and there were two competing sets of candidates, an incumbent slate and a challenger slate. The union appointed an election judge to measure the candidates’ qualifications, including the literacy and residency requirements.
Pop Quiz Time
Though the vice presidential candidate on the challenger slate, Martin Trujillo, answered “yes” to a questionnaire that asked whether he was able to read and write basic English, the election judge didn’t believe him and administered his own literacy test. The judge’s test required the Trujillo to read part of the United States Constitution out loud and to interpret it.
Trujillo had difficulty with the task and was ultimately disqualified on that basis, but no other candidate was asked to take the judge’s test.
The two other candidates on the challenger slate were then disqualified for failing to provide proof of residency and failing to meet work and attendance requirements.
The Secretary of Labor sued, alleging that the union violated Section 401(e) of the LMRDA when it disqualified Trujillo. That provision requires that every member in good standing shall be eligible to run for union office subject to “reasonable qualifications uniformly imposed.” Qualifications for union office must be specific and objective, and they must spell out standards of eligibility so that any member can determine in advance whether he or she is qualified to be a candidate.
On this point, assuming that the literacy qualification itself was reasonable, the court found that the election judge admitted he applied the test only to Trujillo. The judge claimed that he was aware other candidates were literate from knowing them personally. His explanation, the court found, “highlights the lack of objective measure applied to the literacy requirement.”
Granting the Secretary’s motion for summary judgment, the court declared the union’s vice presidential election void and ordered a new election for the office under the supervision of DOL.
Fairness in any Language
Invalidating only a single outcome from a highly contested union election, the case nevertheless shows how seriously courts and the DOL understand the purpose of the LMRDA to ensure fair and democratic practices in labor unions.
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