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Connecticut Supreme Court Says "No" to Unionized Employees' Breach of Contract Claims

  • June 25, 2001

The Connecticut Supreme Court recently has ruled that unionized employees cannot sue their employer to enforce individual contracts for the payment of supplemental wages. The court held the federal National Labor Relations Act pre-empted their claims to enforce the individual wage contracts. Barbieri v. United Technologies Corp. (2001). Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236 (1959), the Connecticut court found that the issue of the "enforceability of alleged individual contracts is neither of 'peripheral concern' to federal labor law, nor does it touch 'interests so deeply rooted in local feeling and responsibility' to avoid the broad preemptive scope" of the NLRA.

In Barbieri, the plaintiffs had received promotions from bargaining unit positions to nonunion salaried positions. In a company-wide reorganization and reduction in force, the employer eliminated numerous salaried positions. As a result, the employer offered the plaintiffs two options: a demotion to an hourly, bargaining unit position and a wage supplement for a fixed period of time or termination with a severance package. The plaintiffs accepted the demotions and received the temporary wage supplement.

During collective bargaining, the union objected to the employer's wage supplement practice, and the employer subsequently agreed to discontinue the supplemental payments. When the plaintiffs filed state law breach of contract claims, the employer argued that the federal NLRA pre-empted their claims. However, the plaintiffs maintained that federal labor law did not preempt their claims because they simply sought damages for breach of individual agreements made before they became members of the bargaining unit.

The Connecticut Supreme Court disagreed. The court noted that, to receive the benefits of the wage supplement program, the plaintiffs agreed to become members of the bargaining unit, "reaping the benefit of the collective bargaining agreement." Concluding that the breach of contract action implicated the "comprehensive amalgam of substantive law and regulatory arrangements that Congress set up in the [NLRA] to govern labor-management relations affecting interstate commerce,'" the court ordered the plaintiffs' claims dismissed.

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