Page 7


Supreme Court >\\\\ rules for workersX Austin Chalk one up for workers and their unions. In the continuing battle over entitlement to unemployment compensation, Texas working folks have won an important round. On Dec. 15, the state supreme court ruled in a suit that laboring people locked out of their jobs by employers are entitled to unemployment insurance benefits. It doesn’t seem like much on first reading, but it’s been a long time coming, and Texas AFL-CIO legislative director John Rogers hailed the court’s decision as a “landmark victory” for working Texans. The suit was brought by David Brown, Roy Alexander, and John Wilsonthree members of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union–with AFL-CIO support. On the other side stood Nipak, Inc., a chemical manufacturer \(and Lone men at a Navarro County plant. Backing Nipak against the OCAW members was the Texas Employment Commission. Herewith, a synopsis of the litigation: The OCAW-Nipak contract had expired, and negotiations for a new contract had come to nothing by the July 9, 1971, bargaining deadline. The union called for a federal mediator to keep negotiations going, asserting that the membership would stay at the job with no contract or under terms of the old contract until a new package was worked out. No deal, said Nipak, adding that the company would “not need the employees” past contract expiration. In a show of good faith, the midnight shift reported for work, but was not allowed past the plant gate. Nipak locked out its union work force until a new contract was signed and ratified by the rank-and-file in Decemberfive long, payless months later. When the workers tried to draw un 16 The Texas Observer employment, however, they were shut out again. The problem? Under Texas law, an employee gets no check if his or her joblessness is “due to the claimant’s stoppage of work because of a labor dispute at the factory. . . .” Nipak alleged that the OCAW members had stopped working because of a labor dispute, and the TEC agreed. No checks. Wait a minute, exclaimed Austin lawyer Sam Houston Clinton, who took the workers’ case into state court; it wasn’t the workers who stopped work, it was the company! It seems an obvious point, but up to now the law has not recognized it. Clinton told the Observer that he’s been trying to get this point across since 1955, when the key phrase, “due to the claimant’s stoppage of work,” was substituted by the Legislature \(at the bephrase, “due to a stoppage of work which exists because of a labor dispute.” At the time, the lobbyists thought they were tightening the law around the necks of striking workers by denying them unemployment compensation even though their plants may have continued to operate at full productiona technical point at issue back then. Twenty-one years later, Clinton has hoist them on their own petard. The District Court of Navarro County went along with the company and the TEC, but the Waco Court of Civil Appeals overturned that decision on Aug. 19, 1976. The higher court agreed with Clinton that the 1955 amendment was a “meaningful” change in language in that workers who would have been disqualified from receiving benefits merely due to the existence of a labor dispute, now could be disqualified only if they had stopped work. The only question remaining in the Nipak case was who had stopped work? “What we have here,” said Justice A. J. James Jr. for the appeals court, “is a lockout situation,” which he described as an employer’s withholding of work from his employees in order to gain a concession from them, labeling it “the employer’s counter-part of a strike.” He held that the workers were involuntarily unemployed and entitled to benefit checks. The Texas Supreme Court, finding “no reversible error” on appeal, agreed. Each affected worker is due $810. Of course, workers throughout Texas win. First, the decision begins to take the state government out of the hip pocket of the giant corporations. Under the old system of denying unemployment compensation to workers involved in a labor disputeeven when it is not one of their makingthe state joins the company in pressuring workers to settle on company terms. Unemployment compensation is a benefit that workers earnit is not welfare, but insurance. To deny that earned benefit to workers is comparable to denying a profit to a company involved in a labor dispute, or to corporate executives involved in a labor dispute. \(A clue to the decision’s impact is the whine of Nipak’s lawyers that it “effectively nullifies the lawful and valid exercise by the employer of a legitimate economic tool in the collective Second, Texas working families gain materially. “In a year’s time,” says the AFL-CIO’s Rogers, “ten to fifteen thousand union members will be affected by this case, getting the checks they are entitled to.” Third is an intangible gain that Rogers optimistically says reflects “the changing atmosphere of state government”it is the fact that an unjust position of the Texas Employment Commission has been overturned ,, despite an alliance of the state government and corporate power. The state’s highest court has struck a blow for the working stiff. My God. J.H.