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Home / Commercial Construction / Judge orders Sunbelt to hire back workers amid dispute with Local 139 (UPDATE)

Judge orders Sunbelt to hire back workers amid dispute with Local 139 (UPDATE)

A judge has ordered the equipment supplier Sunbelt Rentals to hire back two employees it had fired in an attempt to frustrate a unionization drive last year.

An administrative law judge sided in a decision  last week with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, which has been locked in a dispute with Sunbelt over a push to unionize the company’s Franksville office.

Sunbelt and the union have been airing their differences before a National Labor Relations Board judge since March 2019, activity that started after a year of bargaining failed to produce a contract. While the two litigated the dispute before the NLRB, Local 139 conducted an aggressive bannering campaign against the company, placing inflatable figures at prominent job sites where Sunbelt’s equipment was being used.

In an unusual step, the NLRB itself filed an injunction in federal court against Sunbelt in February, calling for the company to work with the union after Local 139 had presented evidence that the company had fired two employees who had sought to join the union.

Patrick Ryan, an attorney for Local 139, said the administrative law judge’s decision last week will help reinforce the NLRB’s attempts to force Sunbelt to negotiate in good faith with the union.

“I think it’s a very solid decision and it would be very difficult to get anyone to change it at this time,” Ryan said.

Sunbelt Rentals is a subsidiary of the London-based Ashtead Group, an international equipment-rental company. Although the company’s Franksville office is the only of its sites in Wisconsin to have a union, some of its offices in other places — in Illinois, for instance — are represented by labor unions.

The judge’s ruling will force Sunbelt to rectify a number of actions it had taken to squash the fledgling union at its Franksville office. An attorney for the company didn’t return a message seeking comment by press time Monday.

Terry McGowan, Local 139’s business manager, praised the judge’s ruling in a statement on Tuesday.

“This decision sends a strong message and illustrates how it has been far too easy for employers like Sunbelt to deprive their employees of the basic rights protected by the National Labor Relations Act,” McGowan said. “Local 139 hopes that Sunbelt is ready to bargain in good faith and treat its employees fairly. Until then, Local 139 will continue to expose Sunbelt’s violations of federal labor law and to fight to better the working conditions at Sunbelt’s Franksville shop, and throughout the State of Wisconsin.”

The decision forces Sunbelt to offer jobs to two employees it had fired for leading a unionization drive and compensate them for lost pay. The company must also restore the union’s bargaining unit by moving some operations back to the Franksville location. Sunbelt moved some drivers, foremen and mechanics to other non-union offices in order to break up the organizing effort.

The decision also requires Sunbelt to post a notice at six other sites in Wisconsin informing employees at those places of their right to join a union. The company must also go back to Local 139 to resume contract talks that had stalled in August as the two sides began accusing each other of wrongdoing. Progress reports will have to be made once a month.

Ryan said the administrative-law judge’s decision will exert influence on a federal court that’s expected to soon rule on a related matter. The court is weighing a request from the NLRB for an injunction that would force Sunbelt to work with Local 139. The company, however, has 30 days to appeal the ruling.

Ryan said without an appeal, the decision last week will compel Sunbet to set up again the bargaining unit it previously dismantled at its Franksville office.

“Hopefully the next step will be to sit down with Sunbelt and get to work,” he said.

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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