Log in Subscribe

A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $3.20 a month.

Public-sector workers' right to sue their union goes on trial


The New York State Court of Appeals will wade into a dispute between a city lifeguard and his union this week that could either significantly curb or substantially expand the rights of public-sector union members. At issue is whether members are legally entitled to sue their unions and hold leadership accountable for unfair, undemocratic elections and potential breaches of their union’s constitution. 

The case brought by Edwin Agramonte against his union, Local 461 of District Council 37, which represents nearly 1,200 rank and file lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools, will be heard by the state’s top court starting on Feb. 15. The implications of the court finding against Agramonte could be crucial for public employees across the state, his lawyer argues. 

Agramonte, a year-round lifeguard, sued Local 461 in the hopes of overturning the results of its 2021 leadership election and scheduling a new vote, arguing that the election was conducted in an unfair and undemocratic manner that breached the union’s constitution because only a small portion of the union’s membership was able to run or vote in the election. Agramonte was permitted to run in the February 2021 election by the local’s elections committee, but all the other members of the slate running alongside him were disqualified because they were seasonal employees who, because the election was held in February, hadn’t paid dues for several months. 

Out of the union’s nearly 1,200 members, only 22 lifeguards, all of whom work year-round, voted in the election and Agramonte, who was out of the country at the time, received zero votes. Agramonte had initially tried to delay the vote by requesting a temporary restraining order and when that failed, the lifeguard filed appeals with the local’s election committee and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ judicial panel, both of which were rejected. 

MLC backs local

Agramonte then filed his suit, but two lower courts sided with Local 461 and threw out the case, arguing that, due to court precedent dating back to the 1950s, members of public unions in New York can only sue their unions in very specific, exceptional circumstances or if every single member of the union is affected and requesting relief. 

“The law is well settled that suits for breaches of agreements or for tortious wrongs against officers of unincorporated associations, including unions, are limited to situations in which ‘the individual liability of every single member can be alleged and proven,’ ” judges in the appellate division wrote in their late 2022 decision, quoting from a 1951 precedent. 

Agramonte’s lawyer, Arthur Schwartz, plans to argue to the judges of the Court of Appeals, the state’s top court, that the 1951 ruling doesn’t apply to cases where union members sue over potential violations of a union’s constitution in an election, and that the unfair conduct of 461’s officers breached the “common law of union democracy” in New York. 

"This ruling gives public sector unions carte blanche to ignore their own governing principles,” Schwartz said of the Appellate Division’s decision, the second court that sided with the union. "DC 37 wants the right to have its union election run in any way they feel like even if it violates the constitution, and that hasn’t been the law in New York since the early 20th century.” 

A suit by a city lifeguard could upend public-sector workers' rights to sue their union. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
A suit by a city lifeguard could upend public-sector workers' rights to sue their union. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The Municipal Labor Committee, the umbrella organization of New York City public sector unions, has filed a brief in support of Local 461 ahead of opening arguments Friday, arguing that courts’ interference in internal union matters would undermine unions’ autonomy. Overturning the lower courts’ decisions, the MLC argued in its brief, would permit courts to rewrite any public sector union’s constitution and trigger a wave of “disgruntled union members” seeking to disrupt union proceedings and rewrite union constitutions with the help of courts.

Schwartz insists that no one is seeking to have a court rewrite Local 461’s constitution, and brought up examples of judges in New York, as recently as 2021, stepping in to resolve a dispute in the internal elections of DC 37’s Local 372 after a slate of challengers was left off a ballot. Schwartz argued that since New York State lacks an adjudicative body able to settle disputes between unions and their members, such as the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining, which adjudicates in public union matters in the city, or the National Labor Relations Board and Department of Labor, that oversee private-sector unions, members must turn to courts for relief. 

Lawyers for the MLC didn’t respond to several requests for comment.  

William A. Herbert, a distinguished lecturer at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, argued that courts in New York are generally deferential to unions when it comes to adjudicating disputes regarding the internal rules governing union elections. He added that courts in New York are often conservative when applying power on labor issues, often deferring to the legislature to make changes like those concerning the at-will employment doctrine.  

"The fundamental public policy issue in this case is who should be making the decisions about the process of union democracy in public sector unions: the state legislature or the courts." Herbert said in a phone interview with The Chief. "The underlying argument by here is that the courts should define public policy on this question."  

Echoing the MLC’s brief, Herbert said that if the court, in granting Agramonte’s argument, broadens the rights of union members to sue their unions over election disputes, it could lead to an increase in litigation against public unions.  

“In every union election in the public sector, if a candidate loses, he or she would be able to sue the association in state court claiming a procedural violation or irregularity,” Herbert said.  

‘What else can I do but sue?’ 

Agramonte, a longtime lifeguard frustrated with the leadership of his union, ran for president of the local only a few months after the union’s former president, Franklyn Paige, was ousted by AFSCME’s judicial panel because he didn’t allow seasonal employees to vote in elections or come to meetings. It was Paige who, in the nominations meeting before the 2021 election, challenged Agramonte’s slate of seasonal members. Alma Diamond, handpicked by Paige and Peter Stein, the president of Local 508 for the last 40 years, is now president of Local 461. 

Agramonte, in interviews with The Chief, argued that filing the suit was the latest step in his push to hold accountable the leadership of both Local 461 and 508, whose cultures he called corrupt, and to democratize a union that has excluded its youngest, most unprotected members and prevented more than 95 percent of membership from voting in elections. Lifeguards have exhausted all their options to advance union democracy in the two lifeguard locals, he said, such as by filing complaints with the Office of Collective Bargaining, pleading with leadership of DC 37, filing appeals with AFSCME and collaborating with Department of Parks and Recreation in a bid for change. 

“This guy has been in power for 40 years and nothing has been done to him,” Agramonte said, referring to Stein. “What else can I do but sue?” 

Many lifeguards have been targeted and exiled from their jobs for trying to hold Stein accountable, Agramonte said, and he doesn’t get invited to union meetings that other year-round lifeguards attend because of his outspoken derision for Stein. Agramonte added he was frustrated but not surprised that the MLC has come out in support of Local 461 and said that if they didn’t want him to sue, DC 37 should’ve cracked down on malfeasance within the two lifeguard locals sooner. 

A spokesperson for DC 37 declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. Local 461 could not be reached for comment. 

Another election for Local 461’s top positions is scheduled for later this month. As of now, Agramonte isn’t sure that anyone will run because many of Stein’s outspoken opponents have been pushed out and those remaining are afraid of speaking out. The 2021 election was the first one in 25 years to be held in February instead of June, despite the union’s constitution specifying that elections must be held in February.  

“Everybody who has opposed Stein has been destroyed,” Agramonte said. “I’ve been persistent as someone who speaks out about corruption in the union. But I'm not just fighting for me. I’m fighting for everyone, the whole department.” 


We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.



1 comment on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here


    It makes you wonder, if we as labor are truly Democratic, then why are some union leaders going to great lengths to create obstacles in union elections? Such obstacles as reduced number of polling places, in person balloting, no electronic voting... The PBA held electronic voting to pass the CBA last year that boasted the highest turnout nationwide for a ratification vote. Out of 21,861 members, 18,519 PBA members voted. That is something to be proud of and shows member engagement. Versus a union that prevents an election from being held to exclude seasonal workers or another union who reduced polling locations and set up in person voting only requiring low income unionists to travel to cast a vote. When only *** votes were cast out of 23,000, a common sense statement would have been, "Gee, we are doing something wrong that our members are not voting" instead of celebrating a victory from keeping the peoples voices from being heard. It also reflects an apathy, when we can't afford that. We can't argue against cities purging voter rolls or reducing polling places when some of our own union leadership are doing the same thing, under the guise of "solidarity" or "union democracy." We should be held to a higher standard.

    Sunday, February 18 Report this