Holding a trial in the middle of the nation’s largest forest fires was probably an unexpected surprise for U.S. Administrative Law Judge Jerry Hermele of Washington, D.C. But the judge himself was a surprise for the attorneys involved in the Donaldson Brothers labor case.
The dispute between Donaldson Brothers, Inc. and the company’s employees over the formation of a union came to a head in a two-day trial in Hamilton last week, and the judge’s no-nonsense, let’s-get-it-over-with approach left attorneys struggling to find witnesses to put before him at times.
Four days had been scheduled for the hearing but Hermele marched the attorneys and witnesses briskly through the testimony in two days, refusing defense suggestions for long lunches and early adjournments. Spurred by Hermele’s approach, the hearing moved at a pace not usually seen in Ravalli County courtrooms. National Labor Relations Board attorney Dan Sanders and Operators Union Local 400 attorney Tim McKittrick called 16 witnesses in the first day of testimony.
Under brisk questioning, union organizers and Donaldson employees testified to a pattern of behavior they believe occurred after union organization began at the Hamilton concrete, sand and gravel plant in March 2000.
Every Donaldson worker who testified stated that he believed his work hours were cut and/or he was threatened and intimidated after the union organizing began. The testimony included stories of meetings with owner Charles Donaldson in his office behind a locked door, intimidating memos and signs being posted, lay-offs and firings, reduced work hours, demands that union stickers be removed from clothing, and refusal by owners of the company to recognize the rights of the workers to unionize.
The hearing was requested because the men did not believe they could hold an election in the “atmosphere of intimidation” they claim exists at the plant. An NLRB investigation found reasonable cause for the allegations and the hearing was set. Since the hearing was scheduled, Charles Donaldson has petitioned the union for a secret ballot election on the issue.
When the complainants rested their case shortly after 4 p.m. on the first afternoon, the defense attorneys, Bruce Bishof of Oregon and Samuel Warren of Missoula, asked that the hearing end for the day so they could meet with opposing attorneys to discuss possible dismissal of some of the charges.
“You do that on your time, not mine,” Hermele said shortly. “Let’s get on with it, gentlemen.”
However, the defense was only able to present two witnesses because none of their other witnesses were in the courthouse.
The first defense witness, a Donaldson bookkeeper, testified that an NLRB investigator had visited her home and asked her questions about procedures in the Donaldson office. When the complaining attorneys questioned the tack the questions were taking, Warren said he wanted to show that the NLRB investigation had been biased against the Donaldson Company.
An obviously impatient Hermele said that line of questioning was “leading nowhere,” adding that he was “about at the end of my rope here.”
The following day, Donaldson’s attorneys presented a dozen motions to dismiss specific charges in the complaint. Hermele denied all of the motions.
Both Charles Donaldson, president of the company, and his wife, Cathy Donaldson, secretary/treasurer of the corporation, testified on the second day. Charles Donaldson testified for more than two hours about his recollections of the union organization attempt. He described April 6—the day the union cards were presented to him—as being “as traumatic as Pearl Harbor.”
“I was listening to the three who were there to intimidate me, essentially.” Donaldson recalled under questioning. He was referring to union representative Sandy Curriero and two other union members who tried to present the cards to Donaldson that morning as he arrived at work.
He explained many of the actions his workers have complained about as attempts to take a “pro-active approach” to the situation, “to keep the pressure cooker down and have a calming effect so the business could function.”
Donaldson put a copy of federal laws pertaining to union organization in every employee’s paycheck the Monday after the organization attempt, he said, as an informational effort. “Maybe in hindsight it wasn’t such a good idea,” he testified, “but if I gave them to the employees, why would I go out and violate every one of them?”
Donaldson said nothing changed in the way he treated his employees. As an example, he stated that employees were always allowed to use company trucks to haul loads of sand, rock or gravel that they bought at discounted prices for their own use.
He and his wife both refused to answer questions about the status of a sale of the company. Cathy Donaldson testified that most of the employees had more hours in the six months from Jan. 1, 2000 to July 1, 2000 than in the same time period in 1999. She refused to compare the months of March, April and May for the same employees, saying she did not break their time out on a monthly basis.
The only rebuttal witness for the NLRB was a former employee who testified that he bought a load of rock from the company and asked Donaldson’s permission to use a company truck to deliver it, after he had signed a union card. “Charles Donaldson told me to go find my own truck,” Joseph Crochee said. The defense did not have any questions for the witness and the NLRB rested its rebuttal case.
Final briefs are due to Hermele in Washington from opposing counsel on Sept. 27. The judge expects to have a decision out by Thanksgiving.
After the hearing, Curriero said she was extremely pleased with the two days of testimony. “I don’t believe the defense presented any evidence that contradicted our complaints,” she said.