In a win for the Association of Pulp and Paper Workers union, a federal judge ruled this week that a KapStone Paper and Packaging supervisor discriminated against a Longview employee based on his union organizing and that the supervisor illegally attempted to interfere or restrain union activity.
Administrative Law Judge Mara-Louise Anzalone found that KapStone violated federal labor law when shop supervisor Kody Brinson disciplined Local 153 shop steward Dave Wendel in October last year.
"This is us defending and supporting our members. Our primary function is to protect and counsel our members, and in the situations like this we won't be bullied into ignoring that responsibility," said Scott Tift, president of AWPPW Local 153, after hearing the news Thursday.
KapStone declined requests for comment. It has until Dec. 6 to appeal.
The case stems from an incident that took place on Oct. 20, 2016.
Wendel, a pipefitter with 17 years of journeymen experience, was working in a team on several maintenance assignments that day, according to court documents. Wendel has served in multiple leadership roles with AWPPW Local 153, which represents about 700 KapStone millworkers.
That morning another Local 153 member approached Wendel to discuss union business. In a 20-minute conversation, Wendel counselled his coworker on what to do after receiving a discharge notice.
Throughout the day, several mishaps and miscommunications led the maintenance team to fall behind on moving a heat exchanger and oil filter components at paper machine 10.
When Brinson confronted Wendel about the delays, Wendel explained the miscommunications, including the fact that the team at one point had been directed to handle the wrong project. Wendel also mentioned he had spent less than a half hour conducting union business. Brinson jumped on the matter, asking, "Who was there, who was it?" He grilled him on the shop floor in front of three other employees.
In the coming days, Brinson called Wendel to hold two "fact-finding" meetings about his lower productivity that day. Typically these types of meetings would involve an entire work team, but Brinson singled out Wendel, according to court documents. Brinson told Wendel that he had to ask permission before conducting union business on company time (which is not true under company policy.)
KapStone issued a "letter of reprimand," to Wendel accusing him of failing to perform job assignments ordered by his direct supervisor and for abuse of discretionary time because two and half hours of his day were unaccounted for.
The company put Wendel on an "accelerated" disciplinary tract, skipping a few steps in the disciplinary process when it issued the "letter of reprimand." The letter goes in an employee's personnel file, making him or her more vulnerable for suspension or termination.
"When you get up to letter of reprimand, suspension would be your next level ... when you're climbing that ladder of discipline, if you skip a step or two, it puts you in a lot (more) dire of a situation," Tift said.
The judge ruled that Brinson's shop floor questioning was an "unlawful interrogation" intended to intimidate other union members present. She added that Wendel did not have to share details of his union organizing.
"From that point on, Brinson acted not as a manager intent on uncovering the true cause of mistakes and delays during the shift but rather obsessed with making a case for disciplining a steward," Anzalone wrote.
The judge added that "Brinson's zeal to pin mistakes on Wendel meant ignoring the obvious roles that others had in the day's mishaps."
KapStone's attorneys painted Wendel as an employee with a history of chaffing at authority. They pointed out that Brinson only questioned Wendel about his union activities after Wendel had mentioned that as one excuse for the work delays. KapStone attorneys argued the company's actions were justified because they said Wendel failed to listen to direct orders. Plus Brinson, who apparently had not previously demonstrated anti-union sentiments, only interrogated Wendel on the shop floor for less than a minute in a noisy environment where everyone was wearing ear plugs.
"Brinson was simply trying to account for Wendel's time on the morning of October 20, and determine why he had not started an assigned job," the attorneys wrote in court documents.
Wendel said he had suspected his union organizing might have played a role.
"I had kind of known that (Brinson) had an issue with me my affiliations ... and I was surprised when I as actually disciplined," he said Thursday.
Wendel said he was pleased by the administrative law judge's decision, but he expects KapStone to appeal.
"I knew it was the right decision, and I was glad to see that they did rule in our favor. It kind of restored my faith in the NLRB system," he said.
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