Court refuses to find union responsible for alleged acts of members on picket line

Labor dispute arose between Macy's and union representing operating engineers

Court refuses to find union responsible for alleged acts of members on picket line

The law against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) aims to protect defendants against meritless lawsuits that might discourage them from exercising their rights to speak and to bring petitions on matters of public concern. 

Stationary Engineers Local 39 – the defendant in the case of International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 39 v. Macy’s, Inc. – represented a group of employees who fixed mechanical issues at Macy’s, Inc.’s department store in San Francisco.  

A labor dispute arose when Local 39 and Macy’s could not come to a new agreement after the previous collective bargaining agreement expired. Local 39 called a strike and started picketing at the store in September 2020.  

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The next month, Macy’s filed a complaint alleging that Local 39 authorized, directed, and ratified unlawful misconduct so that Macy’s would submit to its demands. The alleged pattern of unlawful misconduct included the following acts:

  • mass picketing at the store’s five entrances;
  • blocking ingress and egress at two entrances;
  • disturbing the public through loud and boisterous conduct;
  • creating an unsafe and threatening environment in the community;
  • damaging property by clogging a drain pipe.

Macy’s asked for a temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunctions, and compensatory and punitive damages. Later, it filed a motion seeking leave to amend its complaint.  

Local 39 filed an anti-SLAPP motion against the original complaint. It argued that the alleged acts were an exercise of its right to free speech on a public issue, specifically the labor dispute.  

The trial court allowed Macy’s to move forward with its claims based on five categories of misconduct:

  • obstructing ingress and egress;
  • making unreasonable noise;
  • damaging property through backing up the sewer, damaging restrooms, throwing rocks at doors, and banging a piece of metal on a planter;
  • hitting an employee with a sign;
  • blasting a bullhorn directly into an employee’s ears.

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The trial court partly granted and partly denied Local 39’s anti-SLAPP motion. Certain parts of Macy’s complaint were ordered stricken, including its allegation that Local 39 engaged in misconduct through mass picketing and its request for an injunction to prevent Local 39 from allowing picketing at the store. The complaint’s other parts were allowed to proceed based on minimal merit. The trial court also granted Macy’s leave to amend its complaint.  

Local 39 appealed from the trial court’s decision relating to the anti-SLAPP issue. Local 39 also filed a second anti-SLAPP motion, which was directed at Macy’s amended complaint. The trial court denied Local 39’s second anti-SLAPP motion and its motion for reconsideration.

Local 39 again appealed. It argued that the trial court should have fully granted its anti-SLAPP motions because Macy’s claims were based on conduct protected by the law. 

The California Court of Appeal for the First District ordered the trial court to fully grant Local 39’s first anti-SLAPP motion and to strike Macy’s original complaint.  

Regarding the first anti-SLAPP motion, the appellate court found no evidence proving Local 39’s actual involvement. Macy’s submitted no evidence that union leaders actually participated in the alleged unlawful actions or that they were aware of such actions or present when they occurred, the appellate court said.

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The appellate court ruled that Local 39 could not be held responsible for the alleged actions of its members on the picket line unless there was proof that it actually authorized those actions. Given that members of other unions and the general public allegedly joined Local 39 members on the picket line to show solidarity, the appellate court found it essential for Macy’s to tie the alleged misconduct to Local 39 itself to prove that its claims had minimal merit. 

Lastly, the appellate court considered it unnecessary to address Local 39’s second anti-SLAPP motion, which was directed at Macy’s amended complaint, since the trial court should have fully granted the first anti-SLAPP motion and should have stricken the entire original complaint.

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