NLRB judge sets aside union vote at Snap-On

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   An administrative law judge, in an April 22 ruling stemming from a labor organization challenge regarding last year's union vote at Snap-On Tools Inc. of Elizabethton, has found that the company engaged in unfair labor practices and objectionable conduct prior to and during the March 21, 2001, vote.
   George Carson II of the National Labor Relations Board Division of Judges in Atlanta tried the case of Snap-On Tools Inc. and International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of American, UAW, during the week of Feb. 11-14, 2002, in Elizabethton.
   Carson found that objectionable conduct by Snap-On interfered with employees' free choice of representation and ruled that the election must be set aside and a new election held.
   Gary Oldenburg, plant manager at Snap-On, said in an announcement to employees that the company disagrees with the judge's decision and will ask the NLRB in Washington, D.C., to reject his recommendation.
   "Despite the UAW's legal maneuvering, this facility remains union-free. We will ask the National Labor Relations Board to uphold the election held last March. While our appeal is the next step in the legal process, it will most likely not be the final step," Oldenburg said.
   Following the March 21 election, a tally of ballots reflected the union received 100 votes whereas 107 employees voted for no representation. There were 10 challenged ballots. Following opening of the April hearing, the parties involved agreed to waive all challenges and open the 10 contested ballots, which revealed the union lost by three votes, 110-107.
   The UAW alleged in its complaint that prior to the election, the company engaged in surveillance, granted benefits to employees and announced benefits to retirees in order to discourage employees from supporting the union, and created the impression that union activities would invariably lead to strike violence. Following the election, the complaint alleges that the company issued a discriminatory warning to known pro-union employee David Markland and directed employees not to speak to other employees about an altercation on the plant floor in order to prevent employees from engaging in protected concerted activity.
   In his ruling, the judge ordered the company to cease and desist from:
   * Engaging in surveillance of employee union activities protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act;
   * Granting benefits to employees and or announcing retiree benefits to employees in an effort to discourage employees from supporting the union;
   * Warning or otherwise discriminating against any employee for supporting the UAW or any other union; and
   * In any like or related manner interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in their exercise of the rights guaranteed by the federal act.
   The judge ruled the company must, within 14 days from the date of the order (April 22), rescind the discriminatory warning issued to Markland, and within three days thereafter, notify him in writing that this has been done and that the warning will not be used against him in any way.
   The company also was ordered to post a notice to employees at its Elizabethton facility, within 14 days of the NLRB order, stating that the NLRB found "that we violated federal labor law." The notice also outlines employee rights under the law, promises that the company will not engage in unlawful or objectionable activities, states that it will rescind the warning issued to Markland, and will not interfere with employee rights.
   The UAW alleged that the company engaged in surveillance activities by videotaping employees union handbilling at the plant gate. Guardsmark security employee Polly Grindstaff testified that prior to handbilling activities On Jan. 29, 2001, it was normal for the surveillance camera to pan back and forth during shift changes. Grindstaff said the camera was switched to panning mode about a half hour before shift change to monitor employee conduct in the parking lot, such as dropping bubble gum on the hoods of cars in hot weather and recording accidents for which there might need to be a record, or catching "employees coming in late or something like that."
   Ron Hendrix, union representative, testified that when employees were present handbilling, "90 percent of the time" the camera would be pointed at the gate where they were handbilling and that employees would comment, "we're on Candid Camera." Hendrix observed that some potential recipients of the handbills offered by the union, "if they were right there where the cameras would see them, they wouldn't take handbills." However, Hendrix said, when cars were lined up out of camera range before the gates opened, some of the employees would take the literature.
   Grindstaff did not contradict Hendrix's testimony and admitted that there were no incidents of trespass or violence, nor did she receive any reports of improper driving.
   On Sept. 11, 2001, the company advised employees by letter that it was changing insurance companies and that their deductible and weekly employee contribution for medical benefits were being increased. Following the announcement, several employees learned that their physicians were not in the new health insurance network and complained to Human Resources Manager Carletta Chamberlain, who communicated the concerns to the company's headquarters in Wisconsin. The company took no action to recruit physicians into the Aetna network and advised employees it was their responsibility to recruit their physicians.
   According to the judge, the issue exploded in January 2001 when employees who previously had been unaware of the significance of the change found that they would be required to make copayments of 30 percent to their non-Aetna physicians.
   At Chamberlain's urging, Paul Prickett, director of Corporate Benefits, came to Elizabethton and addressed employees on Jan. 24. Employees testified that Prickett told them they should contact their physicians and "appeal to their sense of loyalty" in an effort to recruit them to Aetna and also told employees "we were just going to have to live with it."
   On Feb. 2, the company distributed an undated memorandum from Oldenburg and Chamberlain advising that the company "is committed to resolving the problems you are experiencing with your health care coverage." The memo also stated that for the next 120 days, the company would "advance you funds and allow you to repay us once you have been reimbursed by Aetna" if a provider demanded up-front payment, and committed to "provide for 90 percent coverage for those providers out of network under the Aetna plan parameters."
   Michael Bryant, president of the UAW Local Union representing hourly workers at the Snap-On plant in Johnson City, testified that employees at that location were experiencing the same problems but were not offered or granted the 120 days of financial assistance announced at Elizabethton.
   The judge found that the company's actions were done in an effort to discourage its employees from supporting the union.