Embattled pro-union workers lose third election at Boydstun Metal

Associate Editor

A year-long anti-union campaign by company owner Rob Boydstun reaped its intended result on July 31: Workers at his Boydstun Metal Works, a North Portland manufacturer of auto transport trailers, voted 89-to-42 not to join Sheet Metal Workers Local 16.

The problem is, union organizers allege, the company so completely violated workers’ rights that it’s hard to accept the results of the election. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had already tossed out two prior votes at Boydstun within the last 14 months, ordering new elections each time. Agency investigations found that the company’s violations of labor law disturbed “laboratory” conditions that are necessary to determine whether employees really wanted a union.

Willy Myers, head of organizing at Local 16, said he thinks a majority wanted a union, but were convinced that their employer would never agree to a contract, and may have voted to end the workplace turmoil.

So the union is seeking what is known as a “Gissel” bargaining order — a direct order by the NLRB to recognize the union, and bargain a contract. That remedy, first ordered in the case of NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co. in 1969, is sometimes imposed where unions have lost an election even though before the election a majority of workers had signed cards saying they wanted a union. To impose such an order, the NLRB has to determine that an employer’s unfair labor practices are so pervasive that there is little or no possibility of holding a fair election at any point in the immediate future.

Myers and apprentice organizer Tim Freeman believe Boydstun Metal Works is such a case, and within days of the election loss they filed multiple unfair labor practice charges against the company.

Among their charges, they allege that company owner, managers or supervisors:

• Told employees that if they voted for the union they would lose their jobs, be laid off, or suffer a cut in pay;

• Conducted surveillance of pro-union employees attending pro-union meetings outside the workplace;

• Conducted a de facto “poll” of employees by giving them anti-union buttons and T-shirts and pressuring them to wear them;

• Discriminated against pro-union employees;

• Told workers, in mandatory-attendance meetings, that bargaining would be futile and a strike inevitable; and

• Told employees that they would be released from work early and paid a full day’s wages if they voted.

Myers and Freeman say much of what they know about the employer’s campaign came to them when an anti-union member of the “No” committee became disgusted with falsehoods the company spread, and began to cooperate with the union campaign.

The anti-union campaign was advised by attorney Jacqueline Damm of the Bullard, Smith, Jernstedt, Wilson law firm.

As in so many other employer anti-union campaigns, supervisors were used as the front-line soldiers, since by law they can’t be part of the union but can be fired for refusing to take part in the anti-union campaign. Two weeks before the vote, they were given a $1-an-hour raise.

Meanwhile, company owner Rob Boydstun justified the continuation of the three-year wage freeze for production workers by citing a provision of labor law that views employer raises during union campaigns as efforts to resist unionization. But if workers voted “no” on the union question, Boydstun is reported to have told them, they would get a $1.50 raise. And in the event they voted “yes,” he made it clear he would never sign a contract.

Ten to 20 pro-union employees, organized in a group called the Truth and Fairness Committee, were meeting twice a week to strategize and reach out to their co-workers. But anti-union workers and supervisors always showed up, Freeman said, sometimes to sit and watch who was attending, sometimes to challenge, intimidate, and disrupt, and always to report back the union committee’s plans to the employer.

Often, Freeman said, Boydstun supervisors would hand out fliers the next day rebutting whatever points union people had made at the pro-union meetings.

Union supporters, like welder Roger Olson, faced pressure in the workplace. Olson had been made to work alone after he came out in open support of the union, but was allowed to work with others again under an NLRB-brokered settlement. But he was assigned to work with a virulently anti-union co-worker, whose lunchbox bore the sticker “f***ing union a**holes.” One day the sticker was found missing, and the co-worker accused Olson, threatening bodily harm if the sticker was not returned. When Olson reported the incident to management, it was reportedly the sticker theft that was investigated, not the threat of violence, and after a supervisor admitted he’d taken the sticker off because of the profane language, no discipline was taken against the employee who threatened Olson.

About 145 workers were eligible to vote in the July 31 election, and the union estimates 45 of those had been hired since the last election. About 70 had signed pledges to vote for the union, but Freeman said he thinks union support must have dwindled in the final days of the campaign.

“They were convinced there was no hope, no matter what they voted,” Freeman said.

Ten days before the election, the T-shirt onslaught began. For its approximately 180 employees, the company had some 1,200 shirts printed up with anti-union slogans, in seven different colors, giving every worker and supervisor a T-shirt every day for seven days.

Two days before the vote, employees were served a New York steak dinner. It was their third free meal at Boydstun: They had barbecue before the first election and steak before the second.

Within 24 hours of the election, the employer is not supposed to do any electioneering, or so the union understood. But the day of the vote, supervisors clad in red T-shirts emblazoned with anti-union slogans welcomed workers to work, and told workers they could leave early after they voted and still be paid for the whole day. They would be issued their paychecks after they cast their ballots.

Myers said the union’s legal challenge to the election could drag on for a year, but said it’s worth it to protect those who supported the union.

“There were 42 workers who voted for the union,” Myers said. “I can’t turn my back on those 42.”

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