6/19/08

Union fight against workers spills into court

Complicated legal process slows union decertification

Last fall, more than 60 percent of the workers at Narricot Industries here signed a petition to throw out the union that had represented employees for 32 years. Now, some are trying to undo that decision, arguing that workers at the seat-belt and webbing manufacturer were coerced by management into signing the petition.

The battle, similar to union-management fights of years gone by, has left some employees feeling angry but helpless and is spilling into federal court in Norfolk.

The union fight began last fall, a few months after International Textile Group, a company controlled by billionaire Wilbur Ross, bought the Boykins factory. Ross specializes in reviving distressed companies in the steel, coal and textile industries and has unions in fewer than 10 percent of his other textile factories.

Vicki Eley, president of Local 2316 of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, said the new ownership told workers from the get-go that it wasn’t used to operating unionized plants. Narricot’s other Virginia plant in South Hill, also owned by ITG, is non-union.

On Sept. 29, with the petition in hand, Narricot withdrew its recognition of the union, breaking off collective bargaining when the two sides were close to reaching an agreement. Over the next three months the company gave employees a pay raise and made changes to employee benefits, documents from the National Labor Relations Board show.

Union members filed unfair labor charges with the NLRB, arguing that the company broke the law when it stopped negotiating and started making unilateral pay and benefit changes.

Then in May, NLRB administrative law judge Margaret Brakebusch ruled that the company was guilty of providing improper assistance to the anti-union effort. While union decertification drives are supposed to be run entirely by rank-and-file employees, Brakebusch found that plant supervisors urged workers to sign the petition and helped others withdraw from the union.

“People were told they’d get a $2 raise and better insurance,” said Eley, who has been active in the union during her more than 30 years at the factory. “People signed it because they were told they’d get more money if they got the union out.”

The company insists that the petition drive was run completely by rank-and-file employees without management assistance. “We want to uphold what employees’ wishes were, and we’ll go through the process to do that,” said Ed Hull, the plant manager.

The case is now before the labor board in Washington. But with only two of the five seats filled and presidential appointments stalled during the political season, it could be some time before a decision is handed down.

In the meantime, the company has refused to resume negotiations. That has led Patricia Timmins, the NLRB’s acting southeastern regional director who is based in North Carolina, to file for an emergency injunction in federal court to return the union to the workplace. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.

“If there’s a withdrawal of recognition and you wait five years before the union can go back in, by that time the employees will be totally disgruntled with the union,” Timmins said. “So what we need to do is take care of it now.”

Narricot said in its district court filings that the benefit changes increased the company’s matching contributions to employee 401(k) plans and gave employees access to more doctors under the new health insurance plan.

Only about a quarter of the plant’s 262 eligible employees belonged to the union at the time of the decertification , although Local 2316 was the bargaining representative for all employees.

At the 4 p.m. shift change Monday, more than a dozen employees said they wanted the union to return.

Gregory Graham said the union used to look out for employees who might not know the fine print of Narricot’s rules. “They say 'it’s policy’ to do what they want, but we don’t know what the policy is,” Graham said.

The company fired two employees who had been outspoken union supporters.

Hull, the plant manager, said Narricot had a “reason of cause” for the firings but said he couldn’t be more specific because of confidentiality rules.

Wilson Joyner, the union’s chief shop steward, said some of the reasons given were poor quality of work, absenteeism and insubordination. The union used to review the personnel files of fired employees, but not anymore.

The two employees filed charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB in April, alleging they were fired because of union activity. The agency is still investigating.

Labor lawyers said union decertification elections or petitions are relatively uncommon. Jason Weitzel, a labor lawyer who advises the local union, said the NLRB doesn’t often seek injunctions. In 10 years of working with the carpenters union regionally, he said, he has been involved in only two other decertification cases.

James Koch, a professor of economics at Old Dominion University and the school’s former president, said decertification – while unusual – fits into the trend of declining membership in trade unions. He said there are two situations in which decertifications typically occur.

“One is when a company isn’t doing well and thinks decertification is the only way to survive,” Koch said. “At the other extreme, you see decertification when employees are doing very well and don’t think they need unions.”

Delores Sides, an ITG spokeswoman, declined to say whether costs were higher for ITG at union factories, citing competitive reasons.

Eley, the union president, said plant manager Hull and other officials recently told employees that the union was trying to get back in the factory without any support.

“He said that a majority of people had signed the petition and that the carpenters union was trying to get us reinstated without being wanted,” Eley said. “He was saying that the union went to court for no reason at all.”

(hamptonroads.com)

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