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April 06, 2007
Union Workers to 9th Circuit: 'They Assaulted Us!'

A group of unionized casino workers in Las Vegas, Nevada, gathered on a break in the employee dining room for a union meeting. Their contract was nearly over, and negotiations with management were under way. One of the workers stood on a chair to rally the group, and soon they were chanting and shouting. That's when things turned ugly.

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What happened. Once the chanting began, security guards burst into the room, presumably to try to quiet the employees. They headed for the chair-standing ring leader, but union members locked arms in a circle around him. Guards rushed the group, pushing and shoving them until they reached the leader, whom they handcuffed. In the scuffle, six employees sustained enough injuries that they sued the casino in state court for committing torts--assault, battery, and imprisonment--against them. Simply put, a tort is an act that is not covered by law or contract and injures someone--also called a civil wrong.

But the employers, Circus Circus Casinos, arguing that the suit was preempted by the federal Labor Management Relations Act, removed it to federal district court. Preemption would be proper if the dispute required interpretation of the workers' collective bargaining agreement. The federal district court judge agreed with the casino that the case was all about the union contract and dismissed it. The employees appealed to the 9th Circuit, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

What the court said. Casino managers pointed to language in the contract specifying that union activities must not interfere with the employer's business operations and that the employer has the right to 'direct and control' its workers. They reasoned, as had the district judge, that whether the shouting and chanting was disruptive to business required interpretation of that provision of the collective bargaining agreement. Appellate judges did not agree.

Like other such agreements, the contract did not address whether guards or other employees could assault, threaten, or handcuff union workers. The question was not whether the workers had been disruptive, judges said. The question was whether guards had a right to assault them for it. No contract interpretation was needed, and the suit was sent back to state court for the workers to pursue their tort charges. Ward et al. v. Circus Circus, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, No. 04-17098 (1/4/07).

Point to remember: Had the casino won the ruling, the workers would have been left with submitting their injury claims to workers' compensation and their other charges to arbitration or federal labor relations adjudication.

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