One of the best kept secrets in American labor law is that duty of fair representation jurisprudence simply does not work. It does not work for plaintiff union members because they must satisfy a close-to-impossible burden of proof and have a short statute of limitations window in which to assert their claim. It does not work for defendant unions because they are often forced to file pointless grievances in order to avoid the cost of litigation. It does not work for defendant employers because they are often brought into these lawsuits because they have the "deep pockets."
This Article makes two proposals to reform duty of fair representation jurisprudence. First, this Article posits that putative plaintiffs should be required to have their claims adjudicated before internal union review tribunals as opposed to courts. This internal tribunal system, if procedurally and substantively fair, would provide unions with a complete defense to duty of fair representation claims. This would move most duty of fair representation disputes from the ex-post stage (after a court dispute has arisen) to the ex-ante stage (before a court dispute has arisen) and reduce unnecessary litigation. Second, this Article argues that the current system needs to be "tweaked" to return to the original Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171 (1967), intent of utilizing rearbitration as a remedy, as distinguished from money damages, when a breach of the duty of fair representation is found.
The history of American labor law, of course, is very much one in which labor union advocates rejected absolute notions of a "right to a day in court" -- since their opponents were so often wont to insist on that right -- instead settling on arbitration as a more practicable and flexible substitute for courtroom procedure. Yet the trial lawyers' current campaign to demonize arbitration has drawn favorable lip service from at least some unionists, few of whom would probably be eager for a world in which labor arbitration itself was ousted from the scene in favor of universal rights to days in court.