Federal board wants temporary ruling for Narricot union

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 21, 2008

NORFOLK—Since withdrawing recognition of a labor union last year, the company that owns Narricot Industries in Boykins has raised salaries for most employees, improved their benefits packages and seen monthly increases in efficiencies.

Nonetheless, a federal judge in Norfolk is considering a request by the government to reinstate the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners that has represented workers at the seat-belt manufacturing plant for more than 30 years.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith heard Friday from lawyers representing the National Labor Relations Board, who argued that the court should temporarily reinstate the union at Narricot until the NLRB is able to rule on an administrative law judge’s finding that the company illegally interfered with what should have been an employee-led effort to expel the union from the company.

Smith said she will issue a ruling &uot;soon&uot; on the petition to require that the union be reinstated.

Allowing the company to continue refusing to negotiate with union representatives would reward Narricot’s management for what the government holds to be unfair labor practices, said Jasper C. Brown, an attorney for the NLRB.

&uot;The [collective bargaining] process itself is being affected,&uot; Brown argued in Norfolk’s Eastern District Court. &uot;Employees have had jobs changed and have had benefits changed.&uot;

If the union is not reinstated, he added, &uot;safety will be affected, wages will be affected and benefits will be affected.&uot;

Both sides agreed that the dust-up began when two employees approached a member of the company’s management team last summer to ask how they could get rid of the union, which counted only 24 percent of the company’s workforce as dues-paying members at the time.

A human resources manager gave the employees blank petitions and told them they would have to get signatures from the majority of the company’s 329 hourly employees in order for the union to be decertified, according to court records.

Henry Vaughan, a 10-year employee, and Shirley Lewis, a 20-year employee, began to collect those signatures with the help of five others. By the end of September, 212 of the company’s 329 hourly employees — significantly more than the majority needed — had signed the petitions to remove the union.

Just how much help those employees had from the management, and whether the company overstepped its bounds in providing that help, are two of the main issues upon which the NLRB eventually will rule.

The company, through its attorneys’ court filings, contends that it provided only the &uot;ministerial&uot; support allowed under federal labor laws, though it admits that at least one employee—purportedly without the company’s knowledge—collected signatures while being paid to work.

The Labor Board contends that the employee was acting as an &uot;agent&uot; of the company when she collected signatures and that the company &uot;actively marshall[ed]&uot; employees to circulate and sign the petitions to get rid of the union. Also, the government alleges, Narricot officials promised raises and better benefits if the union was disbanded.

Following a three-day hearing in North Carolina in February, Administrative Law Judge Margaret Brakebusch agreed with the Labor Board’s attorneys, finding that Narricot had violated labor law by &uot;tainting&uot; the petition process, by withdrawing recognition of the union and by refusing to negotiate with union officials since Sept. 29.

The judge also ruled that the company had violated labor laws by &uot;unilaterally changing wages, the 401(k) plan, health and welfare plans, holidays, and other conditions of employment of its bargaining unit employees,&uot; according to legal briefs on file in federal court.

According to the company’s own filings, 90 percent of Narricot employees received raises after the local union was disbanded. Also, a more generous 401(k) plan was adopted, employees were given a choice of two health care plans with lower out-of-pocket maximums, dental insurance plans were updated, short-term disability and life insurance plans were improved and long-term disability insurance was added as an option.

Lawyers for Narricot argued Friday that both the company and its employees would be harmed if they were forced to undo the changes that had been made, even on a temporary basis while awaiting a final ruling from the NLRB.

&uot;The employees would lose the benefits and wage increases if the union came back,&uot; said James M. Powell, one of the company’s attorneys.

Union representatives, however, said they were well on the way to winning higher wages for Narricot employees when the company abruptly halted negotiations on a new contract.

The union had failed to secure wage increases in 2004, 2005, 2006 or 2007, according to court documents. But Jason Weitzel, a labor lawyer who advises the local union, said after Friday’s hearing that Carpenters’ Union representatives and the company had been close to an agreement on raises during negotiations involved in renewing the union’s contract, which was to have expired in October.

The union, he said, had not pressed for higher wages in past years because of persistent rumors that the plant might close.

Weitzel added that the recent events seem to have resulted in increased interest in union membership by Narricot employees. Organizers have continued to accept applications, he said, though currently no dues are being charged.

The employees’ perception of the union is a vital point in the current legal battle in federal court.

Attorneys with the NLRB argue that failing to reinstate the union while the participants await a final decision from the board will result in irreparable harm to the institution of collective representation locally.

&uot;[Narricot’s] removal of the collective-bargaining representative results in the absence of any advocacy mechanism, such as a grievance procedure,&uot; a situation that &uot;expos[es] employees to inevitable uncertainty and risk,&uot; an NLRB attorney states in one court filing.

Government attorneys also worry that the longer Narricot employees are without a union, the less support there will be for one in the future.

Company representatives, however, claim such concerns are groundless.

&uot;It is a weak union; it has been a weak union,&uot; Powell argued Friday. &uot;They don’t have the support of the employees.&uot;