Labor agreements reached through collective bargaining often come after extensive, multifaceted negotiations between unions and management. Like any negotiation, one party might compromise on one on issue in exchange for a benefit on another. However, a legal question exists when workers agree to a plank that reduces the rights that otherwise might be available to them under California common law.

This was the question presented in Curtis v. Irwin Industries, Inc., a case decided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Carl Curtis, the plaintiff, filed a putative class action lawsuit against his former employer, Irwin Industries, alleging various labor law violations, including denial of overtime pay, failure to provide meal and rest periods and failure to pay minimum wage for off-duty hours. His claim stemmed from the fact that as an oil platform worker, he had to remain on the platform even when he was not on duty. 

A previous California Supreme Court case involving a security guard had held that California Labor Code § 514 requires security guards to be paid while they were onsite and on-call, even if they weren’t on active duty at the time.  Irwin sought to dismiss the case based on Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), which pre-empts certain claims by employees working under a qualifying collective bargaining agreement.  

The Ninth Circuit agreed with Irwin and ruled that Mr. Curtis’s claim was pre-empted under the LMRA and citing multiple precedents to provide the following three reasons.

  • A collective bargaining agreement is a “system of industrial self-government” as opposed to a mere contract.

  • Collective bargaining agreements are established to govern the entire relationship between employers and employees and disputes are typically best handled by an arbitrator based on the “common law” developed by the parties through negotiation.

  • Most collective bargaining agreements have established grievance procedures which usually offer a more efficient means of resolving conflicts related to issues such as overtime pay. 

Moreover, the nature of oil platform work makes it difficult or impossible for off-duty laborers to return home. This unique circumstance also favors reliance on the CBA rather than common law decisions involving different industries. 

Curtis v. Irwin Industries underscores the significance of collective bargaining agreements in shaping the rights and obligations of both employers and employees. When a valid collective bargaining agreement exists, it governs the terms and conditions of employment, often superseding state labor laws on key issues such as wages and working hours.

Garcia & Gurney, A Law Corporation advises employers on wage and hour claims, as well as the interplay between employment law and collective bargaining agreements. We serve clients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, especially in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Please call 925-468-0400 or contact us online for a consultation. Our office is in Pleasanton.