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Local 139, Sunbelt reach contract after three-year dispute over unionization

By: Nate Beck, [email protected]//October 12, 2020//

Local 139, Sunbelt reach contract after three-year dispute over unionization

By: Nate Beck, [email protected]//October 12, 2020//

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The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 has reached a contract to represent workers at Sunbelt Rentals’ Franksville office after a three-year dispute over the labor group’s unionization drive.

After a group of Sunbelt employees voted to join Local 139 in 2018, the union and company wrestled over the terms of a deal that would make the company’s Franksville shop the first in Wisconsin with labor representation.

The dispute spilled into the courts and onto the streets, as Local 139 bannered the company by setting up inflatable figures at prominent jobsites in southeast Wisconsin. The National Labor Relations Board also took the unusual step of bringing Sunbelt into court after the company had fired three employees who chose to join the union.

Ultimately, the two sides reached a deal less than a month after a federal judge had affirmed an injunction and ordered Sunbelt back to the bargaining table in early September. The two-year deal took effect Oct. 1.

“We are thankful for (Sunbelt’s) professionalism during this last round of negotiations,” said Mike Ervin, an organizer for Local 139.

Talks between the two sides resumed in early September after Federal District Court Judge J.P. Stadtmueller declined to revisit a previous injunction he’d issued forcing Sunbelt to negotiate and atone for steps it had taken to complicate the unionization drive. The judge’s initial order, in August, forces Sunbelt to hire back workers it had fired, restore operations it had moved away from the Franksville office in order to stop the union push and take other steps.

Sunbelt, meanwhile, is appealing the court’s injunction and an administrative-law judge’s ruling in a separate case before the NLRB. Ervin, however, said the company took steps to comply with Stadtmueller’s ruling, and met for three six-hour bargaining sessions before reaching a deal with Local 139 in late September.

Sunbelt, Ervin said, is also in the process of hiring three workers that would make up the bargaining unit under the contract. The three workers that the company fired in 2019 have since found other employment — Local 139 found jobs for two of them.

The union, meanwhile, has ended its bannering campaign against the company. For two years, Local 139 put up large inflatable figures — such as one depicting a fat cat in a business suit strangling a construction worker — at jobsites where Sunbelt equipment was being used.

Ervin said the union also sent a message to its contractors urging them to use Sunbelt equipment now that the two sides have reached a contract.

Sunbelt, a subsidiary of the London-based equipment-rental company the Ashtead Group, has sites in states such as Illinois that are represented by unions. The company’s Franksville office is its first in Wisconsin with a collective-bargaining agreement, but Ervin said Local 139 hopes the agreement there will lead to other deals. The union is working to promote itself to workers at five other Sunbelt offices that contain tool shops.

“We’d definitely like to find a way to get into (Sunbelt’s) other general tool shops,” he said.


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