In what some hail as a precedent-setting case for the rights of Spanish-speaking labor union members, a federal court judge in Los Angeles has ruled that the predominantly Latino Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11, must provide Spanish translation at its monthly membership meetings.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Richard A. Gadbois Jr.--in a suit filed nearly two years ago against the union local by three Spanish-speaking workers--is the first in which a court has ruled that a union must provide translation for Spanish-speaking members, said Arturo Morales, the lawyer who represented the three dissident workers in the case.
"Because it is the only case on the books, other courts will look to that decision when they rule on the issue in future cases," Morales said Friday, after receiving a copy of the Dec. 27 ruling in the mail.
In the suit, Morales maintained that Spanish-speaking members were being denied equal participation in union affairs because of the lack of full translation at membership meetings. Lawyers representing the union, however, argued that the court should not interfere in its internal affairs.
Local 11 officials were unavailable for comment. Abe Levy, the union's lawyer, refused to comment on the ruling because, he said, he had not yet received a copy of the decision. He would not disclose whether the union plans to appeal the decision.
Levy did say, however, that the union's membership, and not its leaders, had opposed providing Spanish translation at membership meetings.
He said that the local's leaders proposed three times that translation be provided, but that the proposal was voted down each time it was presented at membership meetings.
"The (local's) administration is not against translating the meetings into Spanish," he said. "But the administration believes that under the federal law in the United States of America the membership has to decide for itself whether the meeting is going to be translated, and the courts and the judges should not do that."
Morales, however, maintained that the right of union members to equal participation in the union superseded the right of the union's membership to set its own policies.
In his written decision, Gadbois said that although he was "extremely reluctant to interfere in the internal affairs of the union," he was "compelled to do so only by a forceful presentation of a grievance of something approximating one-half of the local's entire membership." The majority of Local 11's members are Latino. The local represents about 16,000 workers in the Los Angeles area, including busboys, waiters, janitors, cooks and maids at the city's largest hotels.
Gadbois said the local's failure to provide Spanish translation at its membership meetings "violates the rights to equal participation in union membership meetings of (its) Spanish-speaking members."
In his ruling, the judge ordered the local to provide simultaneous translation of its monthly membership meetings, in their entirety, beginning this month.
Must Post Notice
The order also requires the union to post a notice for its members, which is to read in part: "To all Spanish speaking members . . . who have been discouraged from attending membership meetings by the absence of regularly provided translation, you have the right to participate in the Local 11 membership meetings and your future attendance at membership meetings is sought and encouraged."
Morales said he was "elated" by the judge's decision.
"Unfortunately, the failure to provide translation by labor unions is fairly common," he said. "We would hope that other unions would look to this decision and see that they also are going to have to conform (to) the law or leave themselves open to lawsuits."
Rafael Lemus, one of the three plaintiffs in the suit, and other Latino members have charged that the local's policy of not providing translations reflects the local's wish to exclude the overwhelmingly Latino rank-and-file membership from participation in the union. Lemus said he does not consider the court decision a "victory" because "this is a right we should have had all along and that has been denied us."
Still, he added, "it is a positive decision . . . and will provide a base for change for other unions, not just ours."