By COLIN STAUB
Workers at Vancouver custom ductwork supplier 360 Sheet Metal ended a 19-week strike and returned to work Dec. 5. Their union, Sheet Metal Local 16, says the strike brought wider attention to the company’s anti-union conduct, and led to more regulatory scrutiny on the employer.
A group of workers walked off the job July 25 and began the strike, which was called to protest company unfair labor practices that had been going on for over a year.
Workers voted to affiliate with Local 16 in June 2021, defying company management, which had hired a union busting consultant and retaliated against union supporters. But the anti-union push didn’t end with the election. The company threatened and fired union supporters, and changed working conditions without negotiating over them. It also engaged in surface bargaining, the union says—going through the motions rather than bargaining with intent to reach agreement, as federal law requires.
“It’s a check box of every single anti-union tactic for union avoidance,” said Scott Strickland, special projects counsel for Local 16.
360 Sheet Metal also showed a distaste for the state prevailing wage law. The company took on jobs fabricating custom ductwork for public works projects, jobs that require such employers to pay prevailing wage. Instead, 360 paid close to minimum wage, a difference of about $50 per hour.
Union representatives alerted the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) about the unfair labor practices and Washington Labor & Industries (L&I) about the prevailing wage violations. Then they waited. And waited. Months turned into more than a year, and nearly two years for some of the wage complaints. Union reps and workers were frustrated with the lack of regulatory action against 360. They felt their complaints weren’t being taken seriously, so they escalated.
“The strike was an important tool not only in raising awareness in the community, but also in building power for the workers, giving the workers the ability to shift the narrative,” Strickland said. “If the government agencies are not going to come to your defense, you have a way to defend yourselves.”
Union supporters staffed a picket line Monday through Friday from 5:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. By the fall, eight workers remained on strike, while a handful continued to cross the picket line. The picket was sanctioned by Teamsters Joint Council 37, so union-represented solid waste drivers stopped picking up trash and recycling. Local 16 heard about ductwork being returned by customers, as the quality declined with temps and office workers staffing manufacturing operations.
Government eventually gets moving
Behind the scenes, regulatory action was in progress, even if the agencies were publicly quiet about their work. Strickland says when workers go on strike, risking their livelihoods to stand up for their claims against the employer, that may attract more attention from agencies like the NLRB or L&I.
Coincidental or not, two weeks after the strike began and more than a year after the first Local 16 unfair labor practice charge against 360, the NLRB issued a consolidated complaint on Aug. 9 (bundling the charges together and signaling that the agency is moving forward prosecuting them).
A couple weeks later on Aug. 24, L&I took action. Having concluded its investigation into wage complaints at 360, L&I found the company indeed failed to pay prevailing wage on five public works projects. In one case, 360 paid a worker $14.49 an hour when the wage should have been $62.52 per hour. L&I demanded back payment from 360, which the company ignored, so L&I put liens on the five projects and sought payment from the general contractors on each. Four out of five contractors paid up quickly on 360’s behalf, meaning more than $200,000 was on its way to the 360 Sheet Metal workers.
On Nov. 16, the NLRB, 360 Sheet Metal, and Local 16 met and initially scheduled a full hearing on the charges Dec. 13-16 before an administrative law judge. Strickland says the hearing date was later postponed to late February to allow attorneys more time for a possible out-of-court settlement.
To prosecute the case, the NLRB has brought in three attorneys from its offices in Alaska, Seattle and Portland.
“I think that shows they’re taking it seriously,” said Local 16 business manager Brian Noble.
The strike may have ended for now, but Local 16 says the fight is far from over. The two sides are still meeting to bargain a first contract, and it’s not going well. It took months of negotiations just to agree on boilerplate language that’s usually non-contentious in a union contract.
Local 16 has filed another unfair labor practice charge accusing 360 of surface bargaining.
“I think it’s a textbook case of an employer obstructing a union organizing campaign through refusing to bargain in good faith,” Strickland said.