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Union decertification ripples

The rumbling began late last year among units at Allied Stone and Cordova Dredge, businesses of Illinois aggregate producer Riverstone Group. Members of each petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to conduct elections on maintaining International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 as their collective bargaining representative.

A decertification mind set continues in another state synonymous with organized labor power and trend setting. Late last month, NLRB Regional Director George Velastegui ordered Region 32 (Oakland, Calif.) staff to conduct a secret ballot election for employees of the Oldcastle Precast concrete pipe, manhole and precast plant, Stockton, Calif., to determine whether or not they retain Laborers International Union of North America Local 73 and Northern California District Council of Laborers as their collective bargaining representative. He set tight deadlines this month for the producer and union to file required election paperwork.

The “direction of election” order responded to a batch plant operator’s November 2014 petition for a decertification vote, timed with the sunset of an April 2012–January 2015 contract, terms of which were extended for February. The petitioner is one of about 40 bargaining unit members at Stockton. In addition to batch plant duties, he is among “leads” who oversee crews in four production departments—pipe, manhole, wet cast and reinforcement fabrication—across the 27-acre operation.

From Oldcastle Precast management and Laborers representatives’ testimony at a February hearing, Velastegui discusses the leads within Stockton hierarchy and operating procedures. They start shifts with huddle sessions of three- to eight-member crews—assigning specific duties, reviewing production targets, and soliciting feedback on safety, machinery, equipment and other immediate workplace matters.

District Council and Laborers Local 73 challenged the decertification-minded petitioner and fellow leads’ participation in balloting, contending that their duties make them statutory supervisors and ineligible to vote with a bargaining unit of crane, forklift, cage, coring or product machine, and product handling or transfer equipment operators, plus welders, quality control inspectors and maintenance staff.

Velastegui rejected union claims after comparing leads’ responsibilities against the National Labor Relations Act supervisor definition: “Any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.”

“The Union has failed to carry its burden of presenting evidence sufficient to show that leads assign work using their independent judgment, exercising a degree of discretion arising above the merely routine,” writes Velastegui. “I find leads do not have the authority to responsibly direct employees using independent judgment since the record fails to establish that they are held accountable for the failures of their crew members. The leads … are responsible for completing their crew's production schedule on a daily basis, overseeing their work crew's production, and directing their crew to perform tasks to accomplish that end.”

Sticking with the substance of the National Labor Relations Act and his enforcement duties, the regional director does not delve into the batch plant operator/petitioner’s motives for pursuing a decertification election. Had they been part of the equation, he would likely have discovered a batch plant operator who views his employer as serious about safety; knowledgeable as any peer company about fair compensation and the costs of a running a competitive pipe & precast operation; keen on providing employees the opportunity to weigh in on workplace improvement; and, positioned to trump any value proposition a union could claim to deliver.