You can’t harass, suspend or fire an employee who is interested in starting a union. That employee has the right to talk to co-workers on company property during non-work times (noon, break times, before or after work) and in non-work areas (lunchroom, break room, parking lot). That’s the law.
A Bitterroot Valley company is now appealing a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that it broke that law last year. In September 1999, an NLRB administrative law judge ruled that Alpine Log Homes of Victor had violated the rights of two employees who had expressed interest in establishing a union for the company’s workers.
A hearing was held in Hamilton to deal with allegations that Alpine had suspended two employees and eventually fired one of them for trying to join a union after formal complaints were filed against Alpine by former employee Steve Lehman, the Montana District of Laborers, and Laborers International Union of North America, AFL-CIO. The NLRB combined the three complaints into one for hearing purposes.
The hearing judge, Gerald A. Wacknov, ruled that Alpine broke the law by suspending employees from work because of their union activities.
Alpine Log Homes apparently created a company policy that prohibited employees from distributing any literature on any subject on company property after Lehman and fellow employee Lennie Thompson passed out printed union information on Alpine property in a parking lot. They placed flyers under windshield wipers and in the open windows of fellow employees’ vehicles. The presiding judge ruled the company policy violated federal labor statutes. Under those federal laws, employees may carry out union activities in non-work areas on non-work time.
According to the court’s ruling, Thompson found a threatening note under his own windshield wiper later that day, which said he would be “taken out” if he continued. Thompson reported the note to his Alpine work supervisor, who told him the company would not tolerate violence. However the supervisor warned Thompson to “watch his back,” apparently because what he had done was not popular with co-workers. Thompson also reported the note to the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office.
A short time later at an employees’ meeting, Alpine President John Powell read a statement about the union activities of Thompson and Lehman and about the threatening note. Powell warned the employees that no violence would be tolerated but added that no information was to be distributed on company property either. This was according to a company policy, Powell said, but the judge found there was no prior written rule concerning dissemination of written information on Company property before the union material distribution.
That ended the union activities for a time, according to court documents. Several months later, Thompson and Lehman tried again. They stood outside the parking lot fence and offered pro-union material to co-workers as they left work for the day.
Thompson was called into the supervisor’s office after that incident and given a written discipline notice for handing out literature. He was required to sign the discipline notice. He added the words “I do not agree per federal law” and was interrupted by his supervisor who knocked his arm away from the document, according to court documents.
Shortly, all employees were required to read and sign an employee handbook. There was a separate receipt that said each employee had read all sections, including the section that prohibited employees from promoting any cause on company property and prohibited them from distributing any non-company written materials. Employees were instructed they could not return to work until they had signed the receipt.
When Thompson returned his signed receipt he added a notarized statement at the bottom that stated he was allowed to distribute union materials under the National Labor Relations Act. The company refused to accept the receipt and Thompson was not allowed to return to work. He signed a receipt without the disclaimer two days later and returned to work.
But Lehman and Thompson kept talking about the union to co-workers and both men received additional discipline notices.
First Lehman was suspended for five days, and then indefinitely, “for harassment of co-workers.” This followed an employees’ meeting where Powell publicly “castigated” Lehman and compared him to “an alcoholic who needs to have someone else to blame for his problems.” It was also noted that Lehman had made disparaging remarks about Alpine owner Ken Theurbach. Lehman claimed the business owner was “laughing all the way to the bank” while workers struggled to provide enough food for their families. In the end, Lehman quit his job rather than return for another meeting with management after the week-long suspension.
Although Lehman quit, the judge ruled that the suspensions were illegal under the National Labor Relations Act and that the suspension was retaliation for “lawful protected union activity.”
Wacknov found the company policy of no distribution of materials and no discussion of union activities was also illegal because the men were discussing unions in non-work areas during non-work times.
Alpine Log Homes was ordered to post a notice on its property detailing employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act and informing them of the ruling against Alpine by the NLRB. The company was ordered to take no further action against any employees who chose to promote unions and to remove the illegal portion of the company handbook.
In addition, the company was ordered to remove any discipline notices from Thompson’s and Lehman’s personnel files and to make up lost wages and benefits for the times the two men were suspended.
Powell noted for the record that the decision would “absolutely” be appealed.
To date, Alpine Log Homes’ employees have not unionized.