California Supreme Court Confirms That PERB Has Initial Jurisdiction to Determine Whether a Strike by Public Employees is Illegal, Even When The Strike Implicates Essential Public Services.

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Yesterday, the California Supreme Court upheld the Sixth Appellate District’s decision in City of San Jose v. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, et al., when it held that the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) has initial jurisdiction on whether a strike by public employees violates the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (Government Code § 3500, et seq).1 The Court also held that a public agency subject to the MMBA (Cities, Counties and Special Districts) must exhaust its administrative remedies with PERB before seeking judicial relief, unless it can establish an exception to the exhaustion requirement. Through this decision, the Court resolved conflicting appellate rulings in California.

Facts and Procedural Background

In 2006, the City and Operating Engineers, Local Union No. 3 (OE3) began negotiating for a successor contract. During negotiations, the parties agreed that if they reached impasse, OE3 would provide the City at least 72 hours’ notice of any job actions. The parties reached impasse, and on May 30, 2006, OE3 notified the City of the possibility of a work stoppage after June 2, 2006.

In response, the City advised OE3 that it would seek a court order to prohibit employees who perform services essential to public health and safety from striking or engaging in any work stoppage. On May 31, 2006, OE3 filed an unfair practice charge with PERB against the City, in which it alleged that the City had (1) failed to meet and confer in good faith, (2) interfered with its right to represent its members, and (3) interfered with its members’ right to participate in union activities.

On June 1, 2006, the City sought injunctive relief from the superior court to prohibit 110 specific employees from participating in any work stoppage on the basis that their services were essential to public health and safety. The City alleged that a work stoppage by these particular 110 employees would (1) disrupt the operation of the San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant, (2) hinder the City’s ability to maintain and repair traffic signals; and (3) interfere with the City’s ability to service facilities that support emergency communications.

Both OE3 and PERB opposed the City’s request for injunctive relief. OE3 argued that PERB had exclusive jurisdiction and, as such, the City had to first exhaust its administrative remedies with PERB. The superior court agreed with OE3, and the Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed. The Sixth District found that the remedies available through PERB were adequate, and relied upon prior cases under the Educational Employment Rights Act (EERA) in which the California Supreme Court had previously held that PERB had exclusive jurisdiction to enjoin a strike.

Court’s Analysis

In affirming the Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court first noted that when a public employer subject to the MMBA fears that a strike by certain employees will threaten public health and safety, it must first seek relief from PERB before seeking injunctive relief from the courts. According to the Court, since PERB has initial jurisdiction over unfair practice claims arising under the MMBA, and since an agency’s claim that a strike is illegal would constitute an unfair labor practice, PERB has initial jurisdiction over such claims.

The Court then examined the development of labor law in the public sector, including the expansion of PERB’s jurisdiction and the right of public employees to strike. Like the Sixth District, the Court cited to its prior decisions in San Diego Teachers Assn. v. Superior Court (1979) 24 Cal.3d 1, and El Rancho Unified School District v. National Education Assn. (1983) 33 Cal.3d 946, in which it held that PERB had exclusive initial jurisdiction over strikes by public employees covered under EERA.

The Court then cited to its decision in County SanitationDistrict No. 2 v. Los Angeles County Employees’ Assn. (1985) 38 Cal.3d 564, in which it held that public employee strikes were not unlawful absent a substantial and imminent threat to public health and safety. In that case, decided before PERB obtained jurisdiction over the MMBA, the Court held that courts were to review requests to enjoin strikes on a case-by-case basis to determine whether public safety outweighed the right to strike.

In reviewing the specific facts presented in this case, the Court rejected the City’s claim that, because the right to strike is founded on common law principles, PERB lacked jurisdiction over public employee strikes. According to the Court, when the Legislature gave PERB jurisdiction over the MMBA, it did so fully aware of the Court’s prior rulings in San Diego, El Rancho, and County Sanitation, regarding strikes by public employees.

The Court also rejected the City’s claim that the “local concern” doctrine allowed an agency to seek injunctive relief to prevent employees who provide services essential to public health and safety from striking. According to the Court, because there was no evidence that a strike by public employees would result in civil disorder, the “local concern” doctrine was inapplicable. Consequently, the Court concluded that a strike by public employees, even those who provide essential services, are “generally subject to PERB’s initial jurisdiction.”

The Court then examined the issue of whether a public employer can bypass PERB by showing an exception to the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement. On that issue, OE3 claimed that, in regards to public employee strikes, employers were always required to exhaust their administrative remedies. The City, on the other hand, argued that exhaustion never applied because PERB could not provide an effective remedy where a threatened strike included employees that provide services essential to public health and safety.

The Court rejected both arguments. According to the Court, while exhaustion of administrative remedies is generally required, there are exceptions. It noted that exhaustion is not required where the remedy would be inadequate, when the length of the process would render the remedy ineffective, where exhaustion would result in irreparable harm, or where exhaustion would be futile.

In rejecting the Union’s claims, the Court found “no legal obstacle” that would preclude the application of an exception to the exhaustion of administrative remedies doctrine to matters that would otherwise come under PERB’s initial jurisdiction.

In rejecting the City’s claim, the Court reviewed PERB’s authority for seeking injunctive relief and found it adequate for the facts presented before it. In so doing, the Court referred to PERB’s regulations that establish a very short period of time for PERB to respond to requests for injunctive relief. It noted that the minimum time for PERB to seek injunctive relief is 24 hours.

Applying those time frames to the facts presented in this case, it noted that since the Union had agreed to provide, and did provide the City with 72 hours’ notice of a possible strike, there was enough time for the City to invoke PERB’s process for seeking injunctive relief, and for PERB to seek injunctive relief from the Court.

The Court then concluded that “[w]henever possible,” relief should be sought through PERB rather than the courts, and that the courts should defer to PERB except where “it is clearly shown that PERB’s remedy would be inadequate.”

Impact of this Decision

With this unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court affirms PERB’s initial jurisdiction to determine whether a strike by public employees is illegal. The Court also provides agencies with a very limited ability to bypass PERB and seek injunctive relief from the Superior Court directly, as long as the agency can establish one of the accepted exceptions from the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies.

Consequently, because PERB does not require that an agency wait until it is in the midst of a strike before requesting that it seek injunctive relief, there is no reason for an agency to delay taking some action. Once an agency learns that a union has authorized a strike that the agency feels would threaten public health and safety, the agency should immediately provide the required 24 hours notice of its intent to request that PERB seek injunctive relief, to both PERB and the union, and begin preparing the papers to support its request.

1 PERB has no jurisdiction over peace officers. Public agencies may seek relief directly with the Superior Court

when facing a strike by peace officers.

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City of San Jose v. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, et al.