Monday marks a bittersweet return for Roberto Ruelas.
He goes back to work as a welder for Greenbrier Rail Services in Tucson, thanks to a highly unusual, sweeping court order from U.S. District Judge Frank Zapata. But his return comes after having to work at a Greenbrier site near Los Angeles for more than seven months, creating havoc for his four kids and wife in Tucson.
“It affected us a lot,” Ruelas told me Friday. “What they did to us was bad.”
They, in this case, is Greenbrier’s management, which in November, after workers tried twice to join a union, closed the Tucson site at 3390 E. 36th St. Greenbrier argued its decision was strictly economic, but Zapata rejected that, citing evidence the closure was part of an anti-union effort, and ordered that the company reopen the Tucson facility and rehire 29 laid-off workers.
Neither union organizer Greg Suydam nor company attorney Steve Biddle have ever seen anything like the order to reopen a closed work site, they told me.
“Its highly unusual, and needless to say that’s why we’re appealing,” Biddle said.
Zapata issued the injunction on March 14, and on April 23, two judges of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Greenbrier’s emergency request that his order be halted. Now, Greenbrier is simultaneously reopening its operation here and appealing Zapata’s order to the Ninth Circuit for a full review, as well as fighting accusations of labor-law violations before National Labor Relations Board administrative judge.
To put Zapata’s ruling in context, Greenbrier Rail Services’ Tucson repair site is one of about 30 the company has nationwide and employed 92 people when the current union drama began in November 2012. The Greenbrier Companies is a multinational corporation whose shares trade on the New York Stock Exchange. It designs and manufactures railroad cars and equipment, as well as repairing them. It has about 10,000 employees.
CEO William Furman made about $3.9 million in total compensation last year, a Securities and Exchange Commission filing says. Jesus Omar Ramos, who worked on rail-car suspensions in Tucson, made about $16 per hour, he told me while showing me around the outer perimeter of the Greenbrier site Friday.
He repaired suspensions in a part of the site, the “truck shop,” that is surprisingly rudimentary. It consists of two rows of three containers, hooked together, with a concrete pad in between, like a work site you’d expect to see in Ramos’ native Mexico. The workers stored the tools in the containers and worked outside, whatever the weather.
“We always tried to do the best we could do with what we had,” he said.
In 2011, employees tried to get co-workers to join the United Transportation Union. In October 2011, employees rejected the organizing bid by a three-vote margin.
Then, in November 2012, some employees called up the Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation workers, which had absorbed the transportation union in a merger. Phoenix-based organizer Suydam got the call, came down to Tucson, and was surprised by what they told him.
“We met with these workers to feel them out and see what their real concerns were. At that point, I was still a little skeptical,” Suydam told me Friday.
“Usually, it’s all about money,” he said. “Not one of them mentioned money.”
What they complained about was unsafe working conditions, disrespectful management and the lack of health insurance benefits, he said, even though most were making just $13 — $14 per hour.
“It wasn’t just a tantrum we wanted to throw, or a fit. We had our reasons,” Ramos said.
That November, 50 employees filled out union cards asking for a new vote on joining this union, and soon after 30 employees were terminated, Suydam said. It was the beginning of a more serious anti-union campaign by Greenbrier. In July 2013, the employees voted by a wide margin not to unionize. Then in August, the company announced it had lost its biggest customer at the Tucson site and therefore would close the location.
This did not come as a surprise to Tucson employees. They were told in meetings before the election that, due to the union effort, the company could lose its biggest client, a company called TTX, and the site would close. Returning worker and union-organization leader Jorge Emmanuel Martinez recorded such meetings, creating a key piece of evidence for the court to consider.
Quickly, the company made that prediction a reality, Zapata noted in his ruling. Within a couple of the weeks of the failed union election, Greenbrier told TTX, the biggest client at the Tucson site, that it would be raising the company’s repair rates in Tucson by 18 percent, while leaving the rates at Greenbrier’s San Antonio, Texas and Mira Loma, California plants unchanged.
Unsurprisingly, TTX told Greenbrier it would no longer use Tucson, leading to the closure. But now Greenbrier is bringing back employees and rail cars and has opened contract negotiations with the Sheet Metal Workers union.
Ordering a business to reopen has tricky economic implications. If such measures were to become common, they could undermine the forces that are supposed to determine winners and losers in a market economy.
However, the order will likely be superseded by the NLRB administrative law judge ruling expected later this year. And Zapata’s dramatic decision was provoked by what seems a dramatic over-reaction by a multinational company to a few dozen employees considering unionizing.
So, to me, it only seems fair that people like Ruelas are coming home to their families and jobs, at least as long as Greenbrier remains under court oversight and unable to close the place.
“What we want,” Ruelas said, “is to work in Tucson.”