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Articles Posted in Labor Law/Union Representation

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Recently, in an effort similar to the fast food workers’ one-day strike, Walmart employees in 15 different cities protested the company’s disciplinary actions toward 80 employees who were part of a previous protest. While Walmart officials claim that the disciplinary actions had nothing to do with the protest, Walmart employees claim otherwise, and were illegal, given that the protest was over unfair labor practices. Employer acts that punish employees for striking over unfair labor practices violate the federal National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Until recently, strikes protesting Walmart’s treatment of employees were rare. Those whodid protest faced stiff consequences, such as 60 Walmart employees in California who were fired after protesting outside of a shareholders meeting. Employees who dared to strike often received little support. This time, however, Walmart employees received support from an advocacy group intended to organize them, called OUR Walmart. The goals of OUR Walmart include instituting minimum pay of $13 per hour, full-time jobs available to those who want them, predictable work schedules and health care that is affordable. Some common complaints about Walmart are that it provides jobs that are less than full time in order to circumvent federal health care law, yet has unpredictable shifts that prevent employees from taking on second jobs to make ends meet.

While Walmart officials argue that hourly workers earn close to $13 an hour anyway, other groups place the average at less than $9 per hour, barely enough to cover gas, food, and rent. Meanwhile, Walmart continues to profit even in an uncertain economy, churning out $444 billion in sales in 2012, and with higher profits in the first two quarters of 2013.
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In Kentucky, the current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal minimum wage. Yet it is estimated that $17.18 per hour, full time, is necessary to support a Kentucky family of two adults and two children. That means countless families are living on the edge of poverty, even if both parents have full-time jobs. Minimum wage food service employees across the country are hoping to change that.

Recently, thousands of employees in Kentucky and other states walked out on their jobs at various fast food restaurants, hoping to increase their wages from $7.25 to $15 per hour. One employee noted that even with two jobs, he did not have enough money to buy shoes for his children or insure his car. The protest lasted one day and took place at a time when even members of Congress are calling for a minimum wage increase.

While the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides numerous protections for hourly workers, including a minimum wage, additional pay for work over eight hours in a day (or 40 in a week), and time for breaks and meals, it does not mandate that the minimum wage be tied to the cost of living. Therefore, the minimum wage has tended to lag behind. While some states have higher minimum wages to bridge the gap, Kentucky — as noted above — is not one of them. Many have called for some sort of wage boost: President Obama has advocated for an increase to $9 an hour, while 100 economists recently supported a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour.

Those who seek an increase have traditionally run up against industry claims that more money means fewer jobs. This time is no exception. The restaurant industry argues that if workers get $15 an hour, restaurants will close and there will be fewer jobs all around. Yet given the restaurant industry’s profits, many employees view such arguments with skepticism.

Although the fast food employees participated in a strike, they do not belong to a union. However, their willingness to strike suggests that parts of the food industry may one day be unionized. Fast food employees have traditionally been tough to organize because it is such a high-turnover industry whose workers are thought to be “easily expendable.” Yet for this latest protest, the Service Employees International Union has provided funding and staff to help organize.
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The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 gives certain employees the right to form a union and participate in “protected concerted activities.” The question is which employees have that right. NLRA Section 2 specifically prohibits supervisors from organizing, but an employee’s role is not always so clear-cut. As a result, many cases before courts or the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) involve whether certain employees are supervisors, or part of another group exempt from NLRA protections.

Recently, in GGNSC Springfield v. NLRB, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that registered nurses were considered “supervisors” under the NLRA, and therefore had no right to organize.

The case involved 12 RNs, 10 licensed practical nurses (LPNs), and 46 certified nursing assistants (CNAs) at Golden Living Center, a nursing home in Springfield Tennessee. The nursing home had 100 employees and provided short and long-term care for 120 residents in two different wings of the facility. Two to six RNs and/or LPNs were assigned to a wing. Each RN reported to the director of nursing, who oversaw patient care along with two assistant directors.

In October 2011, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers sought to represent the Golden Living Center RNs in collective bargaining. The union petitioned the NLRB, but the Golden Living Center opposed the petition, claiming that the RNs were “supervisors” under the NLRA. After a hearing, the NLRB ruled in November 2011 that the RNs were not supervisors and certified them as a bargaining unit. The RNs held an election and elected the union as its bargaining representative.

However, the Golden Living Center refused to bargain with the union, and the union submitted a complaint to the NLRB that the nursing home had committed unfair labor practices. The NLRB sustained the complaint and ordered the Golden Living Center to bargain with the union. The Golden Living Center then appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
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According to The People’s Law Dictionary, collusion is “where two persons (or business entities through their officers or other employees) enter into a deceitful agreement, usually secret, to defraud and/or gain an unfair advantage over a third party, competitors, consumers or those with whom they are negotiating.” Allegedly this is what occurred recently in Louisville, Kentucky between a carhauling company, the Ford Louisville Assembly Plant, and the United Auto Workers (UAW). Earlier in 2012, Jack Cooper Transport, the company that had hauled new vehicles from the Ford plant since the early 1950s, was replaced by Voith Industrial Services. While hiring a new contractor to provide services is not illegal by any means, the way in which it occurred in this case appears to be questionable.

Teamsters 89, the union for the Jack Cooper Transport employees, claimed that 166 of their members were replaced by the new contract with other employees who were not with the Teamsters and were paid much less. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that the new carhauling company – Voith – joined forces with the UAW to keep the higher-paid Teamsters from obtaining jobs under the new contract. On December 21, 2012, Voith was ordered to hire 85 of the displaced workers at their original pay rate, pay them lost wages, and nullify the deal with the UAW while a new contract is drawn up.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was originally passed in 1935 and was called the Wagner Act. It not only allowed employees to unionize, but also protected employees who participated in a union from discrimination. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed. It set some boundaries for unions and established some regulations. Today’s statute – The Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) – is a combination of the NLRA and the Taft-Hartley Act, and is enforced by the Nation Labor Relations Board. Under the NLRA, employees can file a petition to unionize if 30 percent of employees support it. An election is then held, but actual unionization can be delayed by objections filed by the company or those wishing to unionize if either group thinks the election was unfair.
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Unions were created to protect the rights of American workers from those higher up who may not have their best interests in mind. Sometimes, however, the unions themselves can make bad decisions that end up negatively affecting a worker they are supposed to protect.

In 2008, Jon Stokes, who is African-American, was allegedly wrongfully terminated his job as shop steward at a construction site. He was immediately replaced with a white employee who had been on the job for only two months by the local plumber and pipefitters union. Stokes allegedly contacted union leaders regarding his termination being fueled by racism, but an investigation was never done. Because of this, the Division of Civil Rights filed a lawsuit.

An agent for the union said Stokes was terminated because people had complained he was too slow in filling their requests for materials, but the workers who had supposedly complained were never identified. Also, Stokes noted that he was never made aware of any issues before his termination.

Earlier this month, the union agreed to settle this matter with the Civil Rights Division. Several changes will be implemented because of this settlement. Union leaders will be required to attend training regarding civil rights law at the state and federal level. Policies that were previously lacking will be established, including how discrimination complaints should be reported and investigated. Anti-discrimination and harassment policies will be created and given to all union members.

While this settlement does not mean the union admitted any wrongdoing, the director of the Civil Rights Division was satisfied, saying “This is a fair resolution of some troubling allegations…It is vital that all employers strive to create a healthy workplace climate, and that every employee — from the home office to the job site — knows and understands the law.”

Jon Stokes has filed a personal lawsuit against the union and it is still pending.
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As the Indiana legislature enters its final session for 2011, Republicans vowed to make their “right-to-work” bill the main focus of the session. This topic is very controversial and caused Democrats to leave the state for five weeks earlier this year to avoid voting on the issue. Both parties have differing views on whether or not it would be beneficial to Indiana employees to have their state become the twenty-third “right-to-work” state.

“Right-to-work” laws are passed on a state-per-state basis and allow individuals to be employed by a company that has union workers without joining the union. Members can opt out of paying membership dues but still reap the benefits of being part of a union. This option was given to each state in the U.S. by a portion the Taft-Hartley Act that essentially gives the states the power to decide whether employers can require employees to financially support the union. Non “right-to-work” states, such as Kentucky and Indiana can have so-called “union shops,” or companies that require their employees to be union members and pay dues. Recently hired employees that are not union members have a set period of time to become members; otherwise they may forfeit their employment.

Supporters of the legislation believe potential Indiana jobs are being lost because employers prefer basing their businesses in “right-to-work” states that give employees the choice of joining unions. Gov. Mitch Daniels stated “We miss about a third of the opportunities because businesses want a state where this protection is provided to workers. In this tough economy, the state needs every edge it can get.” Some employees object to paying dues to a union that may support political agendas that conflict with their own personal political beliefs. Others may not wish to join a union for personal reasons. In non “right-to-work” states, potential employees are denied this choice if they consider jobs at companies that require union membership and union financial support.

Opponents of “right-to-work” laws often call them “right-to-work-for-less” laws because they feel a union is weakened when all employees are not required to participate or contribute. Employees that do not pay dues are still allowed to use union services, including legal representation, which many feel takes away money that should be used to represent dues-paying union members seeking higher wages and improved workplace safety.
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