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Teamsters Broke Law, Judge Rules

The union wrongfully fined 54 who refused to join a grocery `sympathy strike,' the jurist says.

June 06, 2006|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

The Teamsters union violated federal labor law when it attempted to discipline 54 workers who refused to participate in a "sympathy strike" during the bitter Southern and Central California supermarket labor dispute, a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled.

In a decision handed down Wednesday, Administrative Law Judge William Kocol ordered International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 952 in Orange to notify members that they had a right to retroactively opt out of full membership in the union, though they must still pay fees to cover the expense of collective bargaining activities.

By resigning full membership, the workers can avoid fines of $200 to $7,400 for crossing picket lines set up by the United Food and Commercial Workers union in front of Albertsons and Ralphs distribution centers and other facilities in Orange County during the strike and lockout, which ended in February 2004 after nearly five months. The fines were levied but never collected. The workers were also expelled from the union for periods ranging from 10 to 15 years, according to the decision.

The judge ruled that the union never properly informed the workers how to opt out of full membership and placed unduly complicated requirements for taking such action. Federal labor law frees workers who are not full members from union sanctions as long as they pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining.

Although the Teamsters were not on strike, most members refused to cross picket lines. Union drivers, for example, would park delivery trucks away from picketers, forcing store managers and replacement workers to meet trucks far from loading docks and carry goods inside or maneuver the vehicles to the docks themselves.

The judge ordered the union to better inform workers in its bargaining units of their right to "elect nonmember status."

Teamsters officials called the ruling a split decision that would be appealed to the labor board.

"The judge affirmed our right to hold people accountable if they are full members," said Patrick Kelly, secretary-treasurer of Local 952.

Kelly said the workers involved in the case were informed of their right to obtain nonmember status.

"We have a hard time believing that these guys who have been with the union for 20 to 25 years were here involuntarily," Kelly said.

The National Right to Work Foundation, which provided free legal aid to the workers, saw the ruling as a victory. The case underscores "the abuses that can take place where individuals are forced to pay to a union of which they want no part in order to keep a job," foundation spokesman Patrick Ashby said.

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