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Home / Commercial Construction / BANNER YEAR: Local 139 accuses Sunbelt of laying off workers to prevent unionization

BANNER YEAR: Local 139 accuses Sunbelt of laying off workers to prevent unionization

Organizers with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 set up an ongoing bannering campaign against the equipment supplier Sunbelt Rentals at a house on South 84th Street on Wednesday, across the street from Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis. For more than a year, 139 has been trying to unionize members of Sunbelt's Franksville office. Union officials say the company has tried to stymie that effort, and during a meeting on Thursday, told the union it was "reorganizing" the Franksville office and laying off the two remaining employees who favored union representation. (Staff photo by Nate Beck)

Organizers with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 set up an ongoing bannering campaign against the equipment supplier Sunbelt Rentals at a house on South 84th Street on Wednesday, across the street from Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis. For more than a year, 139 has been trying to unionize members of Sunbelt’s Franksville office. Union officials say the company has tried to stymie that effort, and during a meeting on Thursday, told the union it was “reorganizing” the Franksville office and laying off the two remaining employees who favored union representation. (Staff photo by Nate Beck)

Union officials say the equipment-rental firm Sunbelt Rentals has laid off workers at its office in Franksville in a “reorganization” aimed at frustrating attempts to unionize the shop.

It’s the latest wrinkle in a drawn-out and highly visible dispute between the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 and Sunbelt. Local 139 for more than a year has been pushing to unionize the seven employees at the company’s Franksville site. The effort, union officials say, has led to layoffs, firings, various legal complaints and a months-long union bannering campaign complete with inflatable figures depicting a cat in a pin-striped suit throttling a construction worker.

The two parties have been negotiating for more than a year, without much progress. During a meeting between Sunbelt and Local 139 on Thursday, the company announced it would be reorganizing the Franksville office at the center of the dispute, said Mike Ervin, an organizer for Local 139. The decision means Sunbelt will lay off the two remaining workers at the office who want to unionize, he said.

“We’re continuing to do this across the state,” Ervin said. “We’re anywhere and everywhere around the state so that we can to let the public know we’re looking for their support for the workers.”

It’s unclear how the company’s decision to reorganize the office will affect Local 139’s push to unionize it. Ervin said union officials are meeting with attorneys on Monday.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based Sunbelt is a subsidiary of the Ashtead Group, an international equipment-rental company with its headquarters in London. Sunbelt says it is the second-largest equipment-rental firm in the U.S. and carries generators, forklifts, earth-moving equipment and other gear.

The company has eight sites in Wisconsin, including offices near Foxconn Technology Group’s campus in Mount Pleasant and near Madison, Milwaukee, Wausau and Green Bay.

Sunbelt officials did not return a message seeking comment by press time Friday.

Sunbelt’s Franksville office is the company’s first Wisconsin site to move toward unionization. This push came after seven drivers and mechanics voted to join Local 139 in March 2018. A year of rocky negotiations followed, and Local 139 filed a formal charge in March accusing Sunbelt of bargaining in bad faith. Unions represent Sunbelt workers in other states, such as Illinois.

Since accusing Sunbelt of bargaining in bad faith, Local 139 has begun a campaign to spread awareness of the dispute. Union officials have set up large inflatable “fat cat” figures near construction sites that use Sunbelt equipment, and deployed trucks carrying billboards attacking the company. Union officials have taken their campaign to various well-trafficked sites. One, for instance, was set up across the street from the Wisconsin State Fair on Wednesday. They have also been displayed near the Summerfest grounds and even outside a Shorewood mansion belonging to Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who was having the house demolished using rented Sunbelt equipment.

The dispute is also before the National Labor Relations Board. Local 139 began its bannering campaign after going to the NLRB to file a formal charge accusing Sunbelt of bargaining in bad faith last spring. The union in mid-July filed another complaint arguing the company had improperly fired two workers who wanted to unionize the Franksville office.

Ervin said the two workers were fired after the company “realized they were strong supporters” of the unionization attempt.

A judge could decide in September whether to combine Local 139’s wrongful-termination charge with its initial complaint of bad-faith bargaining, according to union officials.

Sunbelt has filed NLRB complaints against Local 139, too. In one case, filed in April, the company argued that the union’s practice of setting up a large inflatable “fat cat” figure near construction sites where Sunbelt equipment is being used runs afoul of federal law.

That argument comes as NLRB officials are trying to put an end to the use of inflatable figures such as the fat cat and a figure called “Scabby the Rat.”

In July, Peter Robb, NLRB general counsel and an appointee of President Donald Trump, filed a brief stemming from a case in Philadelphia arguing that the use of two Scabby figures outside a hotel amounted to “unlawful coercion.” Separately, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that municipalities can restrict the use of such figures, a decision that stemmed from a case in Grand Chute.

Sunbelt’s complaints over Local 139’s use of inflatables could depend on how judges in the Philadelphia case rule, union officials say.

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