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Poor English no bar to arbitration

Poor English skills did not keep two Hispanic union members from being bound by their union contract’s mandatory arbitration clause for complaints of discrimination, the 4th Circuit ruled yesterday in Aleman v. Chugach Support Services (VLW 007-2-070).

The two Hispanic members of a D.C.-area carpenters’ union worked for Chugach Support Services, a construction company that was working on government projects in Bethesda, Md. When the laborers were fired, they sued the company for discrimination under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Among its defenses, the company said the laborers’ complaints were subject to arbitration under a collective bargaining agreement.

But the plaintiff union members said they were not bound by the contract’s arbitration clause. They argued that the employer’s failure to provide translations of the agreement to employees with deficient English skills voided the union contract’s arbitration provision.

The appellate panel refused to recognize such a duty for employers.

Even if employers could determine when they’re subject to this new translation duty, it’s not clear what steps they would have to take to make negotiated union contracts “fully comprehensible and thus enforceable,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III.

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