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Posted February 14, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Interbake labor relations hearings close

Interbake Foods
Interbake Foods near Front Royal faces 48 counts of unfair labor practices. Dennis Grundman/Daily file

Decision on unfair practice charges to be issued soon

By James Heffernan -- Daily Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- For seven weeks, attorneys for the nation's third-largest cracker and cookie maker have been chewing on a 48-count indictment charging the company with unfair labor practices at its Front Royal bakery.

Hearings in the case against Interbake Foods wrapped up on Tuesday. A federal labor relations judge will issue a written decision in the coming months.

The complaint, brought by the Baltimore regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, centers around a more than two-year effort on the part of workers at Interbake Foods' local facility to join the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union. It alleges the plant's union supporters were routinely harassed, intimidated, put under surveillance, threatened with loss of benefits, disciplined and even fired leading up to a series of union elections going back to 2006.

Interbake's parent company, George Weston's, had a long-standing relationship with BCTGM, and shortly after the Front Royal plant opened in the spring of 2006, about two-thirds of the employees signed authorization cards expressing their desire to join the union. But that fall, the company declined to recognize BCTGM as the plant's bargaining representative, leaving the union decision to play out through the normal election process.

BCTGM international representative John J. Price said the move raised an eyebrow among union officials.

"Given Weston's prior history, I have no idea why they did it," he said. "That's the million-dollar question."

Interbake attorney Mark Keenan, of the law firm McGuireWoods, said union campaigns are nothing new to the company. Interbake's bakery in North Sioux City, S.D., is a union facility.

"So there was nothing that our [Front Royal] management team was afraid of going in," he said.

The company conducted its own election campaign to ensure employees "had all the facts so that they could make an informed choice," Keenan said.

The union began levying unfair labor practice charges against Interbake in May 2006, and the claims continued up until two days before the plant's first scheduled union vote in October of that year. The NLRB ultimately called off the election in order to investigate the claims.

Interbake would end up settling the charges before the case went to court.

"Even though we thought we had a good defense, it made more sense financially to settle them at that point," Keenan said.

In subsequent elections, the union drive would come up short. In an April 2007 vote, overseen by an independent arbitrator, Interbake employees voted nearly 2-to-1 against joining the union.

Sometimes the ranks of non-union supporters will grow during a campaign drive, Price said, but the difference between the 2007 vote and the tally from the previous year -- in which two-thirds of employees signed union authorization cards -- was stark, suggesting that the company was engaging in coercion.

The campaign for solidarity continued amidst additional unfair labor practice claims, and by the following spring, union supporters had closed the gap to 100-97.

The BCTGM disputes the 2008 tally, claiming that in the months prior to the election, the company illegally terminated six pro-union workers who would have tipped the scales in its favor. When five of the discharged workers participated in the election, the company challenged their participation, and the votes were not counted. They remain sealed pending the judge's decision in the case.

"Instead of being in the business of making cookies and ice-cream sandwiches, that plant seems to be engaged in union busting," Price said.

Interbake claims that the discharged employees were all fired for legitimate reasons, and without prior knowledge of their support for the union.

Four of the employees were terminated for what Keenan called "serious safety infractions" involving equipment in the plant, while two others suffered "repeated injuries that suggested their work habits were unsafe," he said. Another employee was fired for insubordination, he said, after refusing to accept a third-shift position offered to him as a concession to his medical conditions.

"The management team didn't even know they were union supporters," Keenan said of the fired employees, adding, "Our belief is that they became supporters shortly afterward to see if they [the union] could help get them their jobs back."

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine met with one of the employees, John Robinson, and Joe Sardina, a BCTGM international representative, after a campaign stop in August in Winchester for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

On July 31, 2008, following a three-month investigation into Interbake's alleged labor law violations, the Baltimore region of the NLRB issued a consolidated complaint, and the case went to trial before an administrative law judge in October.

The case is being closely watched for its ties to a key piece of legislation before Congress dubbed the Employee Free Choice Act. Labor groups have high hopes that the bill will help halt a several-decade run of declining union membership.

The act would allow workers to unionize if a simple majority sign authorization cards. Currently, employers can require an election using a secret ballot, and the results need to be certified by the NLRB. A federal mediator would be brought in to issue binding arbitration if the sides can't agree.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are fighting the measure, seeing in card check a path toward more unions and expensive new contracts. Additionally, employers found to have unlawfully fired pro-union employees would be fined three times the amount of the back pay owed workers.

* Contact James Heffernan at [jheffernan@nvdaily.com](mailto:jheffernan@nvdaily.com)

5 Comments | Leave a comment

    Interbake employees..stay strong and keep fighting the fight! We had a similar situation in our fight to organize our plant in Strasburg.

    The benefits of being a Union member is well worth the fight. The grievance procedure alone is worth it as it keeps the company from firing employees at will.

    Don't let the local management control you. Organize your plant and sit down with management and hammer out a fair labor deal. Stand up for what you believe in and if you need any help please contact us at United Auto Workers Local 2999 in Strasburg, VA. Solidarity forever!

    The Federal Government decided that the employees at InterBake need to have The National Labor Relations Board represent them in a court case alledging abuses the company had carried out,in violation of an Agreement the company and the BCTGM Union had reached.
    The trial has ended. Now, the employees wanting the Union to represent them go to work in a climate of fear. All we wanted was respect,fairness and truth-fulness. Why won't InterBake conduct business this way? I was fired, so I obviously I don't know. But, I know now why so many employees wrote "we can't trust the company" in response to a 2006 Survey question. Same as 2007 Survey- nobody knows if what they're hearing is true.

    Agreeing completely with the first comment to the story, I must emphasize how strong my fellow hourly employees have been for the last 3 years in trying to be recognized as the integral part of the success of Interbake Foods.
    As corporate headquarters continues to guide management down the road to degrade and intimidate their own '' key to their success'' , we cannot understand why they use such behavior.
    It would appear that they accidentally became profitable through coersion , firings and layoffs.May this case continue to be watched on Capital Hill
    for consideration of the Freedom of Choice Act and may the great state of Virginia rethink it's position on the ''right to work'' laws.

    Interbake's management has been against the employees wanting representation from the BCTGM since day one. The revolving door on the employee's entrance is there for a reason. Its managements way or you go for a spin to the highway. The mere thought of them having to bargin in good faith with its employees at the negotiating table with the BCTGM unnerves them. They tell new hires in orientation not to talk to anyone about the union or even mention the union. Management doesn"t want to lose total control. The hard working employees at Interbake just want fair policies, fair wages, and to be treated with dignity and respect. With the state of the countries economy all the workers are thankful for their jobs. But it doesn't give mangement the right to coerce and intimidate workers in two union elections. Fire workers for unjust causes. The rest of the employees are scared that one wrong move will send them for that dreadful spin through the revoling door. Interbakes vision is to be the sweetest place to work in the valley. So far its left a bad taste in alot of employees mouths.

    I'am amazed with todays economy that Interbake would waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on company lawyers to fight the NLRB. Instead this money should be reinvested back into the company and to reward what the company says is "THEIR KEY INGREDIENT TO SUCCESS THEIR EMPLOYEES". No wonder mangement repeatedly says there is no money in the budget for maintenance repairs or compensate the employees for their hard work and dedication.

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