Whirlpool Retirees Get Union Support in Health-Care Dispute

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By Carmen Castro-Pagan

Whirlpool Corp. retirees who allegedly were promised company-paid health care for life got support from two unions in their battle to keep Whirlpool from raising premiums, deductibles, and other cost-sharing payments.

The unions are urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to affirm a district court ruling that blocked Whirlpool from raising health insurance costs to retirees, according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed April 12 by unions that represent approximately 1.3 million auto workers and steelworkers.

The unions’ support for the retirees comes three months after the Michigan attorney general filed a brief in the same case criticizing the “uncertainty and inconsistency” of the Sixth Circuit’s recent case law. Michigan urged the court to rule in favor of Whirlpool, arguing that the circuit’s inconsistent case law, which applies to employers in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky, has made it difficult for these states to attract and retain companies that offer retiree health benefits.

In their brief supporting the retirees, the unions argue that federal labor policy creates certain pressures on the parties to reach agreements that encourage compromise on the language used in collective bargaining agreements, in an effort to avoid labor strife. This compromise often requires the parties to find an acceptable verbal formula—usually the minimal words necessary—to express the intent of the parties, the unions said.

Considering this, courts, following U.S. Supreme Court guidance, should look beyond the explicit terms of the clause in question when examining the CBA. Adherence to a strict reading of only explicit terms of a CBA undermines the federal labor policy, the unions said.

The unions cite the 2015 Supreme Court decision that instructed courts to interpret CBAs according to ordinary principles of contract law, at least when those principles aren’t inconsistent with federal labor policy. In the brief, the unions rely heavily on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concurrent opinion that encourages courts to examine explicit terms, implied terms, and industry practice to determine the parties’ intentions.

The nature of CBAs requires courts to look at the entire document for guidance as to the parties’ true intent with any given provision, the unions said. Relying on this expanded analysis forecloses mechanical application of interpretative rules that may undermine the federal labor policy of encouraging agreement over labor strife, the unions said.

United Steelworkers of America represents the unions.

The case isZino v. Whirlpool Corp., 6th Cir., No. 17-03851, amicus brief filed 4/12/18.

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