National Labor Relations Board v. Stowe Spinning Company/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

336 U.S. 226

National Labor Relations Board  v.  Stowe Spinning Company

 Argued: Dec. 9 and 10, 1948. --- Decided: Feb 28, 1949


The principal question for decision is whether the circumstances justified the finding of an unfair labor practice. A union organizer was refused the use of a company-owned meeting hall, and the union complained to the Board. After the usual proceedings, the Board found an unfair labor practice had been committed, 70 N.L.R.B. 614. The Court of Appeals refused to enforce the Board's order, 165 F.2d 609, and the case is her on certiorari. A subsidiary problem is the breadth of the order we are asked to enforce.

First. We are asked to overrule the Board's finding that it is an unfair labor practice [1] to discriminate against a union by denying it the only available meeting hall in a company town when the Board finds that the 'sole purpose' of the discriminatory denial is 'to impede, prevent, and discourage self-organization and collective bargaining by the (company's) employees within the meaning of Section 7 of the Act (29 U.S.C.A. § 157).'

North Belmont, North Carolina, is the home of the four respondents' mills. Interlocking directorates and family ties make the four equal one for our purposes. [2] Each of the mills owns a large number of houses in North Belmont which are rented to employees. At a central location are a school, a theatre, and a building housing a post office, all owned or controlled by the mill owners. In sum, North Belmont is a company town.

In December, 1944, Harris, a union organizer, appeared in North Belmont and began the first organization drive since the textile strike ten years earlier. He decided to begin with employees of respondent Stowe. A meeting hall was needed for the activity, and the post office building was the only choice open to the organizer-he was refused permission to use the school building, and was told that the theatre could be used only for motion pictures. Most of the post office building was erected by respondents for the Patriotic Order Sons of America, a 'patriotic secret order to which any male citizen of the United States of good moral character' can belong. Many of respondents' employees are members; respondents check off monthly dues.

The Order's president, Baxter Black, told Harris that the proposed meeting might be held in the hall on the payment of a janitor's fee. Harris emphasized that he was willing to pay for the use of the hall. It is clear he was not asking special favors. Circulars were printed announcing the time and place of the meeting. Thereupon D. P. Stowe, for the four employer-owners, rescinded the permission granted-because Harris was a textile organizer. While the building seems to have been erected on the understanding that only the Patriotic Order might use it, that condition was never enforced until Harris' union affiliation reached the ears of the owners. Until then the Order had handled its own affairs; Black had been sure that his permission was the final word on the matter.

The Board found that the refusal 'to permit use of the hall * * * under the circumstances constituted unlawful disparity of treatment and discrimination against the union.' The union's complaint also charged that several employees had been discharged because of union activity, and again the Board found for the union. The Court of Appeals enforced the reinstatement order, but refused enforcement of the order relating to the use of the hall. On the latter determination we granted certiorari [3] to resolve an asserted conflict with prior decisions of this Court.

Company rules in Republic Aviation Corporation v. National Labor Relations Board and National Labor Relations Board v. Le Tourneau Company of Georgia, 324 U.S. 793, 65 S.Ct. 982, 89 L.Ed. 1372, 157 A.L.R. 1081, forbade union solicitation on company property. Under the circumstances the Board found that these rules offended the Act, and we upheld the Board. Stowe tells us that its case is far removed from the principles established in those decisions: the Board is now invading private property unconnected with the plant, for a private purpose, in the very teeth of the Fifth Amendment. 'From Magna Charta on down,' we are warned, 'the individual has been guaranteed against disseisin of property.' A privately owned hall is different from the parking lot involved in Le Tourneau's case.

In the sense suggested by Stowe, the Board finding goes further than those upheld previously by this Court. But in a larger sense it does not. We mention nothing new when we notice that union organization in a company town must depend, even more than usual, on a handsoff attitude on the part of management. [4] And it is clear that one of management's chief weapons, in attempting to stifle organization, is the denial of a place to meet. [5] We cannot equate a company-dominated North Carolina mill town with the vast metropolitan centers where a number of halls are available within easy reach of prospective union members. We would be ignoring the obvious were we to hold that a common meeting place in a company town is not an important part of the company's business. The question is of course one of degree. But isolated plants must draw labor, and an element in that drawing power is a community hall of some kind. [6] In the background of discrimination found by the Board in this case, we cannot say that its conclusion should be upset. [7] As we will point out below, the Board may weigh the employer's expressed motive in determining the effect on employees of management's otherwise equivocal act.

Stowe contends that its denial of facilities to the union was in accord with § 8(2) of the Act, prohibiting employer interference with the formation or administration of a labor organization. One Board member agreed, citing a number of cases in which the Board had made a grant of company facilities the basis for unfair practice findings. But Stowe would have the cases hold more than they do. In each of them, granting such facilities to the union was only one facet in a pattern of domination found by the Board. [8] The opinion of the Board in this case states that the 'mere granting of a meeting place to a union by an employer under the conditions present here would not * * * in and of itself constitute unlawful assistance to that union. * * *' We have said that the Wagner Act 'left to the Board the work of applying the Act's general prohibitory language in the light of the infinite combination of events which might be charged as violative of its terms.' Republic Aviation Corporation v. National Labor Relations Board, supra, 324 U.S. at page 798, 65 S.Ct. at page 985, 89 L.Ed. 1372, 157 A.L.R. 1081. Sections 8(1) and 8(2) of the Act would seem to run into each other in the situation before us, were we to forget that the Board is the agency which weighs the relevance of factural data. Presumptions such as those employed in the Peyton Packing Company case, 49 N.L.R.B. 828, at pages 843, 844, [9] may be important in cases like this one. While the Wagner Act does not ask punishment for evil intent, repeated acts of discrimination may establish a natural tendency to view justifications of other labor prac ices with some skepticism. Calculating a cumulative effect on employees is not a job for this Court. We cannot say that the Board was wrong as a matter of law in view of the setting.

The philosophy expressed in the Fifth Amendment does not affect the view we take. The Wagner Act was adopted pursuant to the commerce clause, and certainly can authorize the Board to stop an unfair labor practice as important as the one we are considering. Respondents are unquestionably engaged in interstate commerce within the meaning of the Act. It is not "every interference with property rights that is within the Fifth Amendment * * * Inconvenience or even some dislocation of property rights, may be necessary in order to safeguard the right to collective bargaining." 324 U.S. at page 802, 65 S.Ct. at page 987, 89 L.Ed. 1372, 157 A.L.R. 1081. [10]

Accordingly, we think the Court of Appeals should have upheld the Board's unfair practice charge.

Second. Stowe's final contention, that the Board's order is too broad, is more serious. Stowe is ordered to 'cease and desist from * * * refusing to permit the use of the Patriotic Order Sons of America hall by its employees or employees of (the other respondents) or by Textile Workers Union of America, C.I.O., or any other labor organization, for the purpose of self-organization or collective bargaining.' There are none of the usual qualifications on the face of the order; [11] one construction would permit unions to use the hall at all times, whatever the legitimate activity of the Patriotic Order.

We are asked to read the decree in its background, and reject what is called a strained construction. Implicit in the order, we are told, is the word 'reasonable.' Perhaps this is true. The words of even a judicial decree must be read in their setting. But violation of the order brings the swift retribution of contempt, without the normal safeguards of a full-dress proceeding. Some notice of the prior proceeding must be taken in a contempt action-the very word 'reasonable' invites a glance at what has gone before. But too great dependence on the former action places defendants under a restraint that makes the order itself a useless formality. Again the question is of degree.

In this case, however, the Board did not find that the very denial of the hall was an unfair labor practice. It found that the refusal by these respondents was unreasonable because the hall had been given freely to others, and because no other halls were available for organization. Now the Board asks us to enforce an order that simply does not mean what it says. We must require explicit language making it clear that the mere denial of facilities will not subject respondents to punishment for contempt. What the Board found, and all we are considering here, is discrimination. The decree should be modified to order respondents to refrain from any activity which would cause a union's application to be treated on a different basis than those of others similarly situated.

We therefore direct the Court of Appeals to remand the case to the Board for amendment of its order to conform to the Board's findings and this opinion.

Reversed and remanded.

Mr. Justice JACKSON, dissenting in part.

Notes[edit]

^1  Under the Wagner Act, 49 Stat. 449, 29 U.S.C. §§ 151, 158(1), 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 151, 158(1).

^2  The Board found that 'A. C. Lineberger is president of the respondents Perfection, Acme and Linford; J. Harold Lineberger is vice president of the respondents Perfection and Linford, and secretary-treasurer of the respondent Acme; D. P. Stowe is vice president of the respondent Acme and secretary-treasurer of the respondent Perfection. The officers of the respondent Stowe are C. T. Stowe, president; C. P. Stowe, vice president; and R. L. Stowe, secretary-treasurer, all of whom are cousins of D. P. Stowe.'

^3  Stowe's petition was denied, 334 U.S. 831, 68 S.Ct. 1344; the reinstatement order is not being reviewed in this Court.

^4  See Laine, The Cotton Mill Worker (New York, 1944), pp. 50 51.

^5  See MacDonald, Southern Mill Hills (New York, 1928), p. 34; Blanshard, Labor in Southern Cotton Mills (New York, 1927), p. 64.

^6  See notes 4 and 5.

^7  Respondents do not contest the Board finding that antiunion bias was the cause for their refusal of the hall. And four employees were discharged for union activity. See 165 F.2d 609, 614. Even in the Republic and Le Tourneau cases no such discrimination was shown. 324 U.S. at pages 797, 801, 65 S.Ct. at pages 985, 987, 89 L.Ed. 1372, 157 A.L.R. 1081.

^8  See, for example, Berkshire Knitting Mills v. National Labor Relations Board, 3 Cir., 139 F.2d 134 (company union given use of hall denied to outside union); National Labor Relations Board v. Carlisle Lumber Co., 9 Cir., 94 F.2d 138 (company union given preference over Board-certified bargaining representative); National Labor Relations Board v. Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock Corporation, 4 Cir., 109 F.2d 128 (recognition of inside union without ascertaining employees' wishes-inside union given use of company rooms); National Labor Relations Board v. Lane Cotton Mills, 5 Cir., 111 F.2d 814 (refusal to bargain with certified union coupled with use of recreation room by company union). And see Cudahy Packing Co. v. National Labor Relations Board, 10 Cir., 118 F.2d 295; Matter of Standard Oil of California, 61 N.L.R.B. 1251; Matter of Virginia Electric & Power Co., 44 N.L.R.B. 404, enforced Virginia Electric & Power Co. v. National Labor Relations Board, 319 U.S. 533, 63 S.Ct. 1214, 87 L.Ed. 1568.

^9  Cited and quoted with approval in the Republic case, 324 U.S., at pages 803, 804, 65 S.Ct. at pages 987, 988, 89 L.Ed. 1372, 157 A.L.R. 1081.

^10  We pointed out that neither the Republic nor Le Tourneau cases 'is like a mining or lumber camp where the employees pass their rest as well as their work time on the employer's premises, so that union organization must proceed upon the employer's premises or be seriously handicapped.' 324 U.S. at page 799, 65 S.Ct. at page 986.

^11  Compare National Labor Relations Board v. Lake Superior Lumber Corporation, 6 Cir., 167 F.2d 147, 150, where the Board recognized that the employer might impose 'lawful and reasonable conditions'.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).