SIS Northwest breaks law to keep workers from organizing
BRIAN OPLAND LIKED his job at SIS Northwest, a custom steel fabricator 70 miles north of Seattle. He had friends there, the wages were good, and he enjoyed his work as a welder.
But things turned ugly for Opland this February, when the employer learned that he and other workers wanted to join a union. While the pay was decent at SIS Northwest, the company didn’t pay overtime for weekends or extra hours on shifts. And it didn’t pay anything toward family medical insurance. A father of three young children, 30-year-old Opland could not afford $1,000 a month out-of-pocket to cover his wife and kids.
Opland contacted Local 104 in Seattle and encouraged other workers to attend organizing meetings. Unfortunately, SIS Northwest reacted the way many U.S. companies do when their employees want union representation. It hired a consultant, harassed pro-union employees, stalled the process, and appealed the election. And it went after the key union supporter — Brian Opland.
“My attendance record was really good,” said Opland, “but the company claimed I was coming in late. They made me sign a statement that if I was even one minute late, I would be fired. They also said they would produce witnesses who would state that I punched another worker. Of course, that never happened. It was a company setup.”
“They’ve used about every tactic imaginable to prevent these workers from having a union,” said Local 104 Business Rep Tim Kessler, who is handling the organizing drive for the lodge. “This company seems to have a 1930s-style militant mentality.”
Kessler said SIS Northwest fired Opland after he testified in support of the union during two National Labor Relations Board hearings.
Soon after the firing, Local 104 filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge against the company. While the charge was being considered, workers at SIS Northwest voted to join the union. The company appealed the election twice, and lost both appeals.
“This says a lot about these workers’ desire to have a union,” Kessler noted. “After all the company has done, these guys still voted the union in. Now our focus is to negotiate a first contract.”
Opland moves on
WHILE OPLAND WAITED for the NLRB to decide his case, he needed to support his family. He found a job with a union contractor through Local 104.
The NLRB then reached its decision on the ULP charge. It ordered SIS Northwest to reinstate Opland and pay his back wages. Concerned that the harassment would continue and that he would always have to watch his back, Opland waived his right to return to his old job.
As part of the NLRB’s decision, the company was also required to post a statement that it would refrain from intimidating its employees and interfering with their legal rights to organize and support the union.
“I hope those guys get a good contract,” Opland said of the workers at SIS Northwest. “My only question is: What’s the company’s punishment? I got fired wrongfully. They broke the law. All they had to do was pay three-weeks’ back pay.”
Illegal firings are not uncommon
ALTHOUGH IT IS illegal, firing employees who engage in organizing activities is not uncommon. A study by Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University revealed that one out of four employers involved in union organizing drives fire union supporters. Hostile, aggressive actions by employers have risen over the past three decades, and federal labor laws have failed to stop or even slow them.
Dave Bunch, International Rep and General Organizer, who is assisting Local 104 in organizing SIS Northwest, says many workers who already belong to a union are not aware of just how difficult it is today to organize. “Employers know they can subvert the election process and discourage employees from voting for a union. The penalties they face are minimal — even when they break the law, as SIS Northwest did when it fired Brian Opland.
“Opland’s case is exactly why all union members should support the Employee Free Choice Act,” Bunch continued. “Workers should not have to endure intimidation and threats, or lose their jobs, simply for exercising their legal rights to join a union. Canadian workers have laws similar to the Employee Free Choice Act, and those laws work well — for workers as well as employers.”