A judge for the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wendt Corp. violated federal labor law in how it treated workers who supported efforts to secure a first labor contract.
The charges highlighted tensions inside the Cheektowaga manufacturing plant. Shopmen's Local Union No. 576, which brought the accusations to the NLRB, and Wendt have yet to reach agreement on a first contract covering 28 workers, after the union won a certification election in June 2017.
"It's good that our charges were vindicated, basically," said Anthony Rosaci, an attorney for the union. But Rosaci said that in light of the violations the judge ruled the company had committed, "I think it does call into question the sincerity of (Wendt's) positions in bargaining, too."
A lawyer for Wendt, Ginger Schroder, downplayed the ruling and vowed to fight the charges all the way to federal court if necessary, setting up a potentially drawn-out legal battle.
"I don't think employers ever expect a fair shake at the (administrative law judge) level," she said.
Ira Sandron, the administrative law judge, held a trial on the unfair labor practice charges last September and November in Buffalo. The NLRB is an independent federal agency that enforces the National Labor Relations Act.
Sandron found Wendt had violated federal labor law in a number of ways, including by putting 10 workers on temporary layoff, interrogating a worker about his union sympathies, failing to give the union a chance to bargain over wage increases since May 2018, and suspending or reassigning three workers. Sandron said the company must "make those employees whole" for earnings they were denied as a result.
Wendt Corp., a family owned business, makes scrap metal shredders at its facility on Walden Avenue. As negotiations have continued, workers have rallied outside the plant, joined by members of other unions and elected officials.
James Wagner, a former CWA leader who works with the union-represented Wendt employees, called Sandron's ruling "just and right."
"Certainly the workers feel vindicated," he said.
But Wagner said he felt Wendt "really has no desire to reach a contract with their workers, and their past behavior and actions today show that."
"It's better off to get a partnership here and move forward, in the interest of not just the company and the workers, but the community," he said.
Schroder, Wendt's lawyer, presently a sharply different view of the ruling, and expressed confidence the company would eventually win a reversal.
"If we don't get the rulings that we want, you better believe it's going to end up in the circuit courts. I can guarantee it," she said. "We're not going to be bullied by the NLRB."
Schroder said many of the original unfair labor practices brought against Wendt were dismissed before the trial. Of the charges that were included in the trial, Schroder said: "Over half of those claims were claimed comments made by a supervisor, which are alleged to have occurred more than one year ago, and from the company’s perspective are quite stale." The supervisor did not take the stand in the trial, she said.
Schroder also claimed that a charge alleging workers were laid off as a retaliatory move should not have even been part of the hearing, based on a previous NLRB decision.
Sandron's ruling directed the company to post a notice at the plant, announcing to workers that the NLRB found Wendt had violated federal labor law. The notice also reiterates workers' rights protected by federal law, and pledges to not discriminate against pro-union workers by laying them off or taking other actions.
Schroder said Wendt will challenge the judge's ruling by filing exceptions with the NLRB, and, if necessary, move on to federal court. "That's really where employers have the best shot," she said.
The union and the company blame each other for the lack of a tentative agreement on a labor contract, over a year and a half since the certification election. Their next bargaining session is scheduled for next week.
"If there's progress, it's extremely slow and very difficult," Rosaci said.
As for how the judge's ruling might affect bargaining, Rosaci said: "I hope it's a realization for the company that they have to abide by the law, respect the process, and respect the workforce, and the desires of the workforce to be represented."
Schroder said Wendt put a "full and fair" offer on the table last May, and made improvements to the offer last November.
"Wendt has affirmed over and over that we are ready to sign a collective bargaining agreement," she said.