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National Postal Mail Handlers Union v. American Postal Workers Union

December 18, 2009

NATIONAL POSTAL MAIL HANDLERS UNION, A DIVISION OF THE LABORERS' INTERNATIONAL UNION OF NORTH AMERICA, APPELLANT
v.
AMERICAN POSTAL WORKERS UNION AND UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, APPELLEES



Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (No. 1:06-cv-01986-JR).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kavanaugh, Circuit Judge

Argued September 22, 2009

Before: SENTELLE, Chief Judge, and GRIFFITH and KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge KAVANAUGH, with whom Circuit Judge GRIFFITH joins.

Dissenting Opinion filed by Chief Judge SENTELLE.

This is an arbitration case. Two unions of postal workers -- the American Postal Workers Union and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union -- disagreed over which union was entitled to perform certain work at a U.S. Postal Service facility in Oakland. The Postal Service assigned the tasks to NPMHU's mail handlers. According to APWU, that assignment contravened a 1979 Postal Service directive regarding allocation of work. APWU brought the matter to arbitration and prevailed in the arbitration proceeding.

NPMHU then sued in federal court to overturn the arbitrator's decision. NPMHU claimed, in particular, that the arbitrator erred in finding the dispute arbitrable under the parties' contract. Applying the extremely deferential standard of review for labor arbitration decisions, the District Court upheld the arbitrator's decision on arbitrability even though it was, in the court's words, "probably erroneous." 578 F. Supp. 2d 160, 162 (D.D.C. 2008). We too acknowledge that the arbitrator probably erred as a matter of contract interpretation. Yet in light of the deference courts must afford to a labor arbitrator's contract interpretation -- including an arbitrator's decision on arbitrability where, as here, the parties agree to present that issue to the arbitrator -- we agree with the District Court that we must uphold the arbitrator's decision in this case. We therefore affirm the judgment of the District Court.

I.

A.

In 1979, the Postal Service issued a directive allocating responsibility for various mail processing functions between two crafts of postal employees: clerks and mail handlers. The American Postal Workers Union represents clerks, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union represents mail handlers. We will refer to those unions as APWU and NPMHU.

In 1992, APWU, NPMHU, and the Postal Service agreed on how to resolve disputes over which union should perform certain work (what the Agreement refers to as "jurisdictional disputes"). Under that 1992 Agreement, the parties refer disputes over work assignments to a Local Dispute Resolution Committee that includes representatives of the three parties. If the parties deadlock at that local level, an aggrieved party may appeal to a Regional Dispute Resolution Committee. If deadlock persists, an aggrieved party may appeal to "final and binding" arbitration before an agreed-upon arbitrator.

The 1992 Agreement also provides: "Effective with the signing of this Agreement, no new disputes will be initiated at the local level by either union challenging jurisdictional work assignments in any operations as they currently exist. Except as otherwise specifically provided . . . all local craft jurisdictional assignments which are not already the subject of a pending locally initiated grievance will be deemed as a proper assignment for that facility." J.A. 100 (emphasis added).

B.

In 2001, a dispute arose over which union was responsible for scanning foreign mail on the loading dock at the U.S. Postal Service's Oakland International Service Center. At the time, mail handlers (represented by NPMHU) performed that work. APWU filed two grievances claiming that clerks, not mail handlers, should perform the tasks in question. The parties referred APWU's grievances to the Local Dispute Resolution Committee, but the committee was unable to agree on a ...


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