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NLRB tries to force Sunbelt back to bargaining table with Local 139

A “fat cat” inflatable figure stands at a work site in West Allis in March 2018. Local 139 of the International Union Operating Engineers has been using this figure and similar ones this past year to protest the equipment rental company Sunbelt Rentals’ refusal to negotiate with workers who wanted to unionize.

A “fat cat” inflatable figure stands at a work site in West Allis in March 2018. For more than a year, Local 139 of the International Union of Operating Engineers has been trying to unionize employees at the equipment supplier Sunbelt Rental’s office in Franksville. The National Labor Relations Board filed an injunction in federal court last week seeking to compel Sunbelt to bargain with the union and to prevent the company from trying to discourage union activity by punishing employees. (Photo by Rick Benedict)

Federal officials filed an injunction last week to force the equipment-rental company Sunbelt Rentals into labor negotiations after it had fired employees who had led a unionization drive at its Franksville office this past summer.

It has been nearly two years since workers at Sunbelt’s Franksville office voted to join the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139. Since then, Sunbelt and the labor union have been locked in a dispute marked by tense bargaining sessions, complaints of wrongdoing and inflatable fat cat figures the union has had placed at prominent job sites to pressure the company. Discussions between the two sides broke down entirely in August, when Sunbelt laid off two employees and told the union it was shutting down its Franksville office.

The National Labor Relations Board stepped in last week by filing an injunction in federal court in an attempt to force the company back to the bargaining table and stop its efforts to break up the union. The filing specifically accuses Sunbelt of refusing to meet with 139 at reasonable times and places, of refusing to discuss wages during bargaining sessions and of laying off workers to prevent a unionization drive.

It further states that a Sunbelt manager, in late 2018 or early 2019, threatened employees who supported unionization by telling them that it would be “futile” to organizes. It goes on to say that another manager, in March or April, had asked some workers at the shop to report on the union activities of other employees. And it contends that a Sunbelt manager, in April 2019, “interrogated” employees about their “union sympathies.” Finally, the filing accuses Sunbelt, in August, of eliminating the shop’s bargaining unit by permanently laying off two employees whom 139 had represented and by transferring work to non-union offices.

Brian Hlavin, an attorney for Local 139, said the injunction shows just how unabashedly Sunbelt has been “flouting” federal law. He said it’s striking that the injunction was approved by a board appointed by President Donald Trump.

“This Trump board is probably one of the more pro-management boards that I’ve seen, and even they said, ‘enough, we’re going to authorize and go to court,'” Hlavin said. “That sets a pretty significant tone.”

The dispute dates to March 2018, when seven mechanics and drivers at Sunbelt’s Franksville office voted to form a union represented by Local 139. It was Sunbelt’s first operation in Wisconsin to take such a step, although Sunbelt rental locations are unionized in states such as Illinois.

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 company in the U.S. and carries generators, forklifts, earth-moving equipment and other gear. Company officials did not return messages seeking comment by press time Tuesday, and haven’t yet filed a response to the NLRB injunction.

Following the Franksville office workers’ vote to unionize, Local 139 and Sunbelt officials tried for about a year to reach a deal. Those talks ultimately went nowhere.

So in March of last year, Local 139 filed the first of what would be several charges of unfair labor practices against Sunbelt and began conducting a bannering campaign — setting up large inflatable figures depicting a greedy cat strangling a construction in public places near and around Milwaukee and elsewhere. Sunbelt responded with complaints of its own against the union.

The union and company haven’t met again for talks since August, Hlavin said. And an administrative law judge is weighing the charges the two sides have filed against each other in an ongoing trial. Hlavin said that although the trial is near its mid-point, it could still take months for the judge to issue a decision.

An injunction could force Sunbelt back to the bargaining table relatively soon, and a judge could force the company to hire back workers it fired and reinstate a bargaining unit at the Franksville office.

The NLRB’s complaint asks a judge to order Sunbelt to negotiate with Local 139 and to stop trying to prevent union activity by discriminating against certain employees. If a court proves sympathetic, it could force Sunbelt to hire back pro-union workers and transfer some equipment and operations to its Franksville office.

“Unless (Sunbelt) is forced to reinstate the bargaining unit work and bargain in good faith, the bargaining unit will be permanently eliminated, and the Union will lose the support needed to bargain effectively when the Board ultimately issues a bargaining order,” according to the filing.

Local 139, meanwhile, has not stopped its bannering campaign against Sunbelt. The union has been regularly setting up signs and inflatable figures at high-traffic construction sites where Sunbelt equipment is being used.

On Tuesday, Mike Ervin, an organizer for Local 139, had an inflatable figure placed on the corner of South 102nd Street and West Lincoln Avenue in West Allis. He said he’s hopeful the NLRB’s injunction will finally lead to a deal with Sunbelt.

“Ultimately, we’d like to bring Sunbelt back to the table,” Ervin said.

Key months in Local 139’s dispute with Sunbelt

• March 2018 – Sunbelt employees in the company’s Franksville office vote to join the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139.
• March 2019 – After a year of unsuccessful bargaining, Local 139 files an unfair labor-practice charge and accuses Sunbelt of negotiating in bad faith.
• April 2019 – Sunbelt files an unfair labor-practice claim, accusing Local 139 of violating the law by placing large inflatable figures in public places to put pressure on the company in a bannering campaign.
• July 2019 – Local 139 files a complaint accusing Sunbelt of improperly firing two employees who had pushed to form a union.
• August 2019 – With numerous complaints of wrongdoing pending, Local 139 and Sunbelt meet for a bargaining session for the last time.
• February 2020 –The National Labor Relations Board files an injunction to force Sunbelt back to the bargaining table and prevent it from discouraging union activity.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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