Laid-off Tucson workers win injunction in union fight

2014-03-24T00:00:00Z 2014-05-06T14:08:37Z Laid-off Tucson workers win injunction in union fightBy Patrick McNamara Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A group of workers who claim they were laid off from their jobs in retaliation for attempting to join a labor union scored a victory in federal court against their former employer.

U.S. District Court Judge Frank Zapata issued a temporary injunction on March 14 against Greenbrier Rail Services, ordering the company to reinstate 28 former employees who were laid off in November 2012.

“This was, in my opinion, just outrageous the way some of these workers were treated,” said Greg Suydam, a representative with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union in Phoenix.

The union brought the claim against Greenbrier — an Oregon-based company that provides equipment and repair services to the railroad industry — to the National Labor Relations Board after they said efforts to gain support for unionization were met with threats and retaliation.

A petition for injunctive relief the National Labor Relations Board filed in federal court in Tucson in February on behalf of the workers claimed company management attempted to put down the unionizing efforts through interrogation, surveillance, solicitation of complaints against pro-union employees, promise of benefits to those opposed to the union and threats that going union would cost jobs through a loss of business in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

Zapata’s order details the types of anti-union hostility the company has been accused of, including issuing disciplinary notices to pro-union employees for discussing nonwork-related activity about the unionization effort with co-workers during work hours. Fellow employees, however, were not disciplined for their nonwork-related activities while on the clock.

“We knew that could happen,” said Jesus Omar Ramos one of the laid-off workers involved in the drive to organize.

The risks in trying to organize were known, he said, because the company displayed open hostility toward unions.

“Before that would happen, they said they would shut down the plant,” said Ramos, 28.

Greenbrier ultimately did close the Tucson facility in December.

Company officials maintain the reason for the closure was the result of economics, not fear of unionization.

“Our Tucson facility lacked sufficient work. As a result we were required to cease operations in Tucson in December 2013,” Greenbrier vice president for external relations Jack Isselmann said in an emailed statement. “At that time we offered continued employment to Tucson employees at other Greenbrier facilities, including company-paid relocation for the employees and their families.”

Isselmann said the company has no plans to reopen the Tucson facility.

Zapata’s order contradicts those claims, recounting episodes in June and July 2013 when Greenbrier officials called an employee meeting to warn workers that the company’s largest customer was anti-union.

About the same time, according to court documents, Greenbrier officials presented a new proposal to that customer that included increased rates unless volumes increased.

The customer declined to renew the agreement, and subsequently stopped sending work to the Tucson facility, opting instead for a different Greenbrier site.

Union officials argued the rate proposal was a deliberate pretext for closing the Tucson facility.

“We took that as union animus,” Suydam said.

He said many of the employees still struggle following the layoffs.

Ramos, for instance, said he lost his house after he was laid off.

“It was pretty tough,” he said. “Especially when I had my 4-year-old daughter ask me why we had to move out of our house.”

He’s since found a new job, and said he’s starting to get back on his feet, despite not being provided a severance package when he was laid off.

Isselmann said the company could not discuss specific employee’s pay arrangements or whether the former workers would be offered new jobs or provided severance in accordance with the temporary injunction.

Additional allegations outlined in the order said the 28 workers the company laid off might have had better performance records than others who retained their jobs, despite statements from Greenbrier that employees were evaluated based on performance, work attendance and other factors.

Zapata also wrote that company officials never reviewed any of the former employees’ performance records before the layoffs.

The order is not the final word in the case, and Greenbrier officials said they plan to appeal the order.

“We believe this order is not supported by the facts or the law. We are appealing the court’s ruling,” Greenbrier’s statement reads.

The statement also said the order was made without a hearing and that the National Labor Relations Board bypassed its administrative processes in requesting the injunction.

Greenbrier officials also noted that the unionization efforts failed.

While pro-union employees gained enough support to bring the issue to a vote, 77 percent of workers voted against the unionization plan.

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or pmcnamara@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @pm929

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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