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SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK
COUNTY OF KINGS : PART 43

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LORRAINE BALL, DANIEL ISAACS, and JOSEPH BASSO,

Plaintiffs,

 

- against -

 

RALPH BONNANO, as PRESIDENT of the SUBWAY-SURFACE
SUPERVISORS ASSOCIATION, and RICHARD RUSSO, as SECRETARY-TREASURER
of the SUBWAY-SURFACE SUPERVISORS ASSOCIATION,

Defendants.

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Index No. 32969799

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

 

MURIEL SHAFF HUBSHER, Judge.

     This is an action to require a union, the Subway-Surface Supervisors Association ("SSSA"),to comply with its Constitution by calling and holding two membership meetings, the first in order to vote on a motion regarding contract negotiations with the New York City Transit Authority and to read a proposed amendment to the Constitution of the SSSA calling for early election of officers of SSSA, and the second in order to vote on the proposed amendment. Plaintiffs also seek to be shown certain financial information.

     Plaintiffs Lorraine Ball, Daniel Isaacs, and Joseph Basso are members of the SSSA who intend to be candidates in the next election of officers.

     The SSSA is a labor union which represents certain supervisory employees of the New York City Transit Authority. The SSSA is governed in its operation by its Constitution.

     Article VI, Section 2 of the SSSA Constitution, which sets forth a procedure for calling special meetings of the membership, states as follows:

 

     Special meetings shall be called by the President or the Executive Board or upon the written petition of 10% of the members in good standing, with at least five signatures from six of the covered supervisory titles within Sections represented by the Association. No business other than that for which the special meeting is called shall be transacted at that meeting. Notice of special meetings shall be given by mail, postmarked no later than forty-eight (48) hours before the date of the meeting or by posting of notices on the bulletin boards at least forty-eight (48) hours beforehand and such notice shall contain the purpose of said special meeting.

 

     Article XIV of the SSSA Constitution, the section concerning Constitutional amendment, states as follows:

 

     These By-Laws may be amended by submission to the Secretary-Treasurer of a written proposal to be read and explained at the next following regular membership meeting; debated and voted upon at the next succeeding meeting and passed by a three-quarters (3/4) vote of the members present and voting at such meeting.

 

     There are approximately 3,000 members of the SSSA. In July 1999, plaintiffs obtained the signatures of over 500 members, which represents more than 10% of SSSA's members in good standing, with at least five signatures from six of the covered supervisory titles within Sections represented by the SSSA, on a petition calling for a special membership meeting. The petition reads as follows:

 

     We the undersigned members of the Subway-Surface Supervisors Association (SSSA) pursuant to Article VI of the SSSA Constitution demand that two special membership meetings of SSSA be called to address the following:

     (a)      A meeting within ten days of the submission of this petition to

              1)      Vote on the following motion: "The President and Negotiations Committee are directed to resume negoiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Transit Authority on the contract which expired in 1997, and are further directed to cease all efforts to submit the contract to binding arbitration, and to withdraw from the process if it has been commenced."

              2)      Have the following amendment to Article VII of the SSSA Constitution read to the members: "The next regularly scheduled election of SSSA shall be held with nominations in August 1999 and balloting in September 1999, with the terms of office to end in February 2003."

     b)      A meeting within 25 days of the submission of this petition to vote on the amendment to the SSSA Constitution set forth in Section (a)(2) above.

 

     On July 28, 1999, the petitions were hand-delivered to Ralph Bonnano ("Bonnano"), President of the SSSA, along with a letter requesting that Bonnano schedule the special meeting. Copies of the letter and the petitions were delivered, that same date, to union counsel.

     Neither Bonnano nor any other officer of SSSA has responded to the July 28, 1999 letter and the SSSA has not called either a regular or a special meeting since July 28.

     Note:  The SSSA Constitution calls for a minimum of four regular meetings per year. Although it is now October, the union has held only one meeting this year. The Constitution does not direct when during the year that meetings must be held; counsel for the union represented to the court that the union planned to hold its next regular membership meeting in late November. Presumably, it would then hold two more meetings in December. No explanation was given as to why "regular" meetings are not held at regular intervals.

 

     While ignoring the plaintiffs' petition, representatives of the SSSA did commence a proceeding which will lead to binding arbitration of the as-yet-unsettled 1997-2000 contract with the New York City Transit Authority. See Civil Service Law § 209. Despite the fact that the members voted down a proposed contract in June 1999, the union was not required by law or its Constitution to submit the contractual dispute to the binding arbitration procedure.* Binding arbitration would determine the working conditions of the members for several years and would take decisions on the contract out of the membership ratification process. The members who signed plaintiffs' petition seek a special meeting at which they can vote on whether the union should invoke binding arbitration, or whether they should simply resume negotiations and pursue other strategies to get a contract.

     *Defendants assert that binding arbitration is a "way off." However, they invoked the process which results in the introduction of a mediator selected by the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). Once involved in the process at the union's invitation, this mediator has the power to ask PERB to certify an "impasse" which would force the matter into binding arbitration. Plaintiffs do not object to continued negotiations, nor do they object to a mediator. They simply object to a mediator who has the power to take the decision on the contract out of the hands of the union's membership.

 

     In addition, on July 28, 1999 plaintiffs delivered a letter to Richard Russo ("Russo"), Secretary-Treasurer of the SSSA, requesting copies of the Annual Financial Reports for 1997, 1998, and 1999. Russo asserts in his opposing affidavit that he will make the records available upon 24 hours' notice.

     The Constitution of a labor organization is a contract between a union and its members. [International Ass'n of Machinists v. Gonzales, 356 U.S. 617, 618-619 (1958); Polin v. Kaplan, 257 N.Y. 277 (1931).] Union members have the right to seek enforcement of these constitutions, particularly when they are seeking to enforce their right to have union elections conducted in compliance with the union's constitution. [Summers, Judicial Regulation of Union Elections, 70 Yale N.J. 1221, 1231-1233; cf. Libutti v. DiBrizzi, 343 F. 2d 460 (2nd Cir. 1965).]

     This Court is mindful of the deference due to a union's interpretation of its own organic documents and of the need for caution in determining whether to become involved in union elections. But deference and caution are not synonymous with blindness and paralysis. "Courts will ignore interpretations made by union officials which run adverse to the plain meaning of contract language." [Sion v, New York Mailers Union No. 6, 166 F. 3d 465 (2nd Cir. 1999); Craig v. Boudrot, 40 F.Supp. 494, 500 (SDNY 1999).]

     The propriety of judicial vigilance, particularly where motivations of political favoritism are at play, is well established, "lest deference be transformed into protection for union 'self-protectionism' and bad faith." [Craig v. Boudrot, 40 Supp. 2d 494, 500 (SDNY 1999 ).]

     In this case, SSSA has taken the position that it does not have to call the two meetings requested because the petitions should have been addressed to the Secretary-Treasurer and because votes on constitutional amendments must take place at "regular" meetings. Even if these assertions are correct (and they are in dispute), the Court finds this position to be pone of semantics rather than substance. Even if the petitions should have been addressed to the Secretary-Treasurer, this Court believes that it is logical and reasonable to conclude that the delivery of 500 petitions to the union president and to counsel was made known to the Secretary-Treasurer. Similarly, since "regular" meetings are held irregularly, there is little difference between the regular meetings conducted by the union and the special meeting requested in the petition to vote on whether to submit the contract to binding arbitration; here, there is an unequivocal violation of the Constitution.

     To the extent that it is necessary, this Court deems the petitions amended to be addressed to the Secretary-Treasurer.

     The plaintiffs and the members of SSSA are plainly threatened with immediate and irreparable injury by Bonnano's and Russo's refusal to conduct the two membership meetings and the votes which the petitions request. Deprivation of voting rights has long been regarded as irreparable because it obviously cannot be remedied by an award of damages. [Craig v. Boudrot, supra 501; Mason Tenders Local 59 v. LTLNA, 924 F.Supp. 528, 542-543, aff'd mem., 101 F.3d 686 (2nd Cir. 1996); see, e.g. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976).] Therefore it is appropriate to issue the preliminary injunction which follows.

 

The Court having reached the factual and legal conclusions it has set forth supra, it is hereby ORDERED,

 

     1.      That the SSSA shall conduct a Special Membership Meeting on or before October 25, 1999. At that meeting, the members will vote by secret ballot on the question of whether to submit the contractual dispute with the NYC Transit Authority to the process, under Section 209 of the Civil Service Law, which can lead to binding arbitration. At that same meeting, plaintiffs' proposed constitutional amendments will also be read. Plaintiffs shall be permitted to adjust the dates in the proposal they submitted to reflect the delay caused by defendants' inaction.

     2.      On or before November 8, 1999, SSSA shall conduct a regular membership meeting in which members shall be permitted to vote by secret ballot on the constitutional amendments proposed by plaintiffs.

     3.      At least ten (10) days'notice shall be given to the SSSA membership of both meetings, by mail. SSSA shall retain the services of an independent arbitrator, chosen in consultation with plaintiffs, to supervise the voting at both meetings.

     4.      Pending the vote ordered in paragraph 2 above, SSSA is enjoined from participating in any proceeding which could lead to a declaration of impasse by PERB. This order, however, shall not prevent SSSA's officers from meeting with the Transit Authority to resume negotiations or utilizing the services of the PERB-appointed mediator to assist the parties at such negotiations. Should the membership of SSSA vote not to take their dispute to binding arbitration, the union's action to invoke the proceedings set forth under Section 209 of the Civil Service Law shall be considered a nullity.

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