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Posted February 14, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Interbake labor relations hearings close
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 [email@example.com](mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
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