NLRB slaps Williams Controls for unfair acts

A campaign by a Tigard-based truck throttle manufacturer to starve out its strikers was dealt a legal blow last month when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — agreeing with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 492 — found Williams Controls, Inc. to be in repeat violation of U.S. labor law and ordered the company to reinstate 120 workers with back pay.

The decision buoys the spirits of the strikers, many of whom are experiencing severe economic hardship at this point — nine months after the strike began after the company demanded wage cuts of as much as $7 and hour.

The NLRB’s finding designates the strike an “unfair labor practice” strike, meaning that under the law, strikers cannot be permanently replaced. [Courts have held that workers can be permanently replaced in strikes over “economic” reasons, but have drawn the line when it comes to strikes over employer violations of labor law.] It also means that Williams Controls could end up owing back pay to the strikers, dating from mid-April, when the union made an unconditional offer to return to work. The company has refused to take back any strikers.

The union has asked for a court injunction to force Williams to take strikers back. But that could take a couple of weeks to many months to obtain, said attorney Steve Goldberg, whose law firm represents Local 492.

The NLRB complaint will be heard July 21. The company was able to avoid an earlier such hearing when it agreed to settle some of the charges last December. In the settlement, Williams promised to bargain in good faith. It’s now clear that settlement was a ploy to delay legal resolution of the charge, said Dave Himebauch, head of the union bargaining team.

In fact, Himebauch said, Williams’ defiant attitude toward the union — and the government — are a consistent tactic of the company’s bargaining team, which includes union-busting consultant Jim Frazer and human resources manager Trent Smith. [Smith was also the HR manager at Voith-Sulzer Paper Technology, where Frazer succeeded in busting the Machinists Union after a bitter 22-month strike.]

The law says employers are obliged to bargain “in good faith” with unions in attempt to reach an agreement. The NLRB’s 12-page complaint against Williams is almost a checklist of bad-faith bargaining. Board agent Jeffrey Jacobs concluded after investigation that the company’s bargaining team:

• Refused to meet face-to-face with the union bargaining team; refused to schedule bargaining dates in advance; refused to meet for more than a couple hours at a time; and habitually arrived late and sometimes not at all to scheduled bargaining sessions;

• Required multiple bargaining sessions to discuss basic contract terms that existed in the previous contract;

• Engaged in regressive bargaining over wage, pension and disability benefits (i.e. its proposals worsened over time);

• Refused to explain its proposals;

• Refused to agree to its own proposal on union shop;

• Refused to agree to any union proposal, and refused to respond to or discuss union counter-offers to its proposals and refused to answer union requests for basic information about the pension plan and benefits.

The news of the ruling was cause for celebration for the strikers, who gathered June 5 for a barbecue in the parking lot of nearby United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555.

“We all have a story to tell where this financial burden has gotten out of control,” said striker Michael Rivenes, a 23-year Williams employee and a member of the negotiating team.“It’s made us all depressed.”

Strikers get $200 a week from a union strike fund, and the UAW also pays for their health coverage. But it’s not enough to stop them from sinking. Less than a third have found other work, and most of those are part-time positions that pay less than Williams.

Thirty-five families are enrolled in a food bank and three meals a day are now served on the picket line, which has become a soup kitchen of sorts for many.

“I don’t think anybody planned to be out here this long,” he said. “You start out just trying to keep up with the bills, but after you exhaust your checking, savings, credit cards, and 401(k), before you know it you’re a couple months behind on your bills.”

Despite the hardship, no striker crossed over, and few are second-guessing the decision to strike, because company violations of the law and demands to cut their wages almost in half left them no choice.

“We left the building because our employer was engaged in a non-stop string of lawlessness,” Himebauch said.

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