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By Mark Scialla and Naureen Khan
Workers at a multimillion-dollar government contractor’s plant have leaked two audio recordings of what they say are their manager’s attempts to dissuade them from forming a union. The recordings provide a rare example of what some organizers say are commonplace anti-union intimidation tactics.
Former employee Wayne Walker provided Al Jazeera with an audio recording of a one-on-one meeting with a man he said was his manager at the Duluth, Ga., facility of Iron Mountain, a large records-management company. Walker, who had been a truck driver at the plant for more than five years, said he was fired less than two weeks after that confrontation for organizing union meetings. Iron Mountain said it has followed the law throughout the process and denied that Walker was fired because of union activities.
“I know what you did, Wayne. It’s all out,” a voice Walker identified as his manager can be heard saying. “There’s no secrets anymore. I know about the meeting. I know about the card signing.”
“It doesn’t matter to me if you are doing it,” he tells Walker. But the manager later goes on to say, “I am upset with you personally because of what I’ve done for you in the past. I saved you on more than one occasion.”
Walker worked for Iron Mountain’s paper-shredding division, where he drove trucks outfitted with paper shredders to destroy records for clients, including the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency. He said he was told the reason for his firing was that he missed two bins of documents at one of his last stops. He added, however, that missing bins is not uncommon and is usually not a major problem for management.
“It had nothing to do with the bins, because if that’s the case, me and my partner would’ve been in the (meeting) together,” Walker told Al Jazeera.
In early October, after management found out that workers had begun organizing, Iron Mountain started ordering them to attend one-on-one and group meetings. Representatives of Iron Mountain said the meetings are to “educate” workers about the consequences of forming a union.
A recording of one such group meeting on Oct. 24 was published on the Internet on Tuesday by Georgia union organizers. In it, a management representative can be heard telling workers, “If a union is voted in, it will make it much more difficult to get things done, and you all need to educate yourself on what that process is all about.”
One manager can be heard saying, “I can’t help but take it personally ... It does hurt. It does sting. But when it’s all said and done, we’ve got to have that mutual respect.”
The two recordings, along with Walker’s alleged firing over union activities, demonstrate the steep price that may be paid by some workers who attempt to organize — especially in parts of the country that have traditionally been hostile to the labor movement. In the recording of the group meeting, a management representative can be heard reminding workers that “this is the South.”
Iron Mountain spokesman Daniel O’Neill, in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, said that he could not verify whether the recordings were complete or unedited and that the company has followed the law throughout the process. He identified the alleged management voice in the recordings as simply “a transportation manager.”
“Our intent in these meetings is to inform employees, not to pressure them as the union alleges,” O’Neill wrote. “We’re staunch advocates of secret-ballot elections that allow employees to vote freely for what is best for them and their families. We respect our employees’ legal right to form unions.”
He added, “As to the claims made by the Teamsters and Mr. Walker that we terminated him for any union interests or activities, this is not true. These are the same allegations Mr. Walker is making in a matter that is currently being litigated before the labor board. Out of respect for Mr. Walker’s privacy and because this is in litigation, we will say only that we terminated him for cause and very specific issues unrelated to union activity.”
More than two dozen workers in the document-shredding department have been meeting for more than a month to strategize about forming Teamster Local 728 at the company. With a supermajority of signatures, in mid-October they submitted a petition to the federal government to unionize and are set to take a vote on unionization in late November.
Workers say the plant has changed for the worse in recent years, with demands to meet new deadlines and quotas.
“We are choosing to go union because the company is making changes and we are left behind. The company is talking about billions of dollars of profit, but we haven’t seen it. All we see is extra work,” a current Iron Mountain employee told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“They started putting all these restrictions on time,” the employee said. “It became mandatory for us to meet goals. This job used to be fun, and now everyone is being harassed.”
The National Labor Relations Act, a federal law passed in 1935, protects employees’ right to unionize and delineates lawful and unlawful behavior from employers and workers during the process. Although employers are within their rights to campaign against the formation of a union and to outline the reasons for their opposition, it is illegal to threaten reprisal or directly interfere with the organizing process.
“Employers aren’t crossing a line in saying that unions are a bad idea or you’re going to be unpopular with your neighbors because of this. That’s just propaganda,” said Kathy Barnard, a labor lawyer at the Seattle-based employment law firm Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt. “But if they imply that there will be a consequence within their control that will adversely affect you because you support the union, that is unlawful.”
Employers cross the line if they say they will have to shut down or downsize because of unionization, that pay or raises will be impacted or that preferential treatment will be given to employees who vote against unionizing.
Legal experts specializing in labor law said mandatory meetings like the one Iron Mountain hosted — where employees are lectured about the futility of unionization, often in a hostile tone — are the rule, not the exception.
“There’s big bucks in union busting,” said Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project. “Consultants advise companies on how to skate very, very close to the line without crossing it.”
Dismissing or disciplining employees because of their union activities is illegal, but workers must prove that their manager knew about their union activities, that they were disciplined because of it and that they did not commit any fireable offenses. The National Labor Relations Board is the government agency tasked with investigating and resolving such disputes.
Walker said he is in the process of filing a complaint with the NLRB.
Barnard said the manager’s recorded comments to Walker would likely bolster Walker’s case, given that the meeting happened shortly before he was fired, that his manager said he knew everything about the union organizing, including Walker’s union participation, and that he stated he was upset Walker hadn’t told him before he started organizing. The remarks indicated that supervisors were monitoring Walker’s activities and in context could be read as threatening, Barnard said.
Still, such conduct on the part of employers can effectively dissuade workers from unionizing, labor experts said. Workers who file complaints often face a lengthy process before their complaint goes before the NLRB, said Michael Wasser, a policy analyst at Jobs with Justice/American Rights at Work, an organization that advocates for workers’ right to unionize. Even if a case is decided in a worker’s favor, the company faces no punitive damages. It must only rehire the employee and pay lost wages.
“It’s the cost of doing business,” Wasser said. “The real issue is that they’ve now sent a signal across the workplace, a shot across the bow, to anyone that’s thinking about exercising their right to form a union. Your job may be on the line. You may not be fired, but you may be viewed a different way by your employer.”
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