Labor board says Sonitrol branch unfairly quashed union election

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Saturday, March 1, 2003

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - A National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge has ruled that Sonitrol of Chattanooga unfairly denied its employees an opportunity to unionize.

Judge Jane Vandeventer has ordered Sonitrol to post a notice for 60 days, which was expected to come due at the end of February, informing employees of their right to join a union, and that the company would not retaliate against employees who sought union representation.

Late last year, Vandeventer issued a ruling saying that the company’s threats to close the branch and cut jobs and benefits after 10 to 12 service and installation technicians attempted to organize a union in late 2000 constituted unfair labor practices.

Court documents said that there had been several attempts by the employees at Sonitrol of Chattanooga to seek union representation, but each time the pro-union employees failed to secure enough votes to organize.

The latest attempt at unionization came after several employees became interested in seeking union representation.

Employees in the branch’s service and installation department signed cards expressing their desire to join the union. After meeting with the employees, union representatives went to meet with management to try to secure voluntary union recognition.

According to court documents, in late 2000, two representatives from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers visited Sonitrol of Chattanooga and asked to see General Manager Steve Castello to discuss union recognition.

The union representatives testified in court that during the meeting, Castello became extremely agitated and yelled at them that they “were not doing this right,” and told them to leave the building.

Castello testified he was agitated during the meeting, but he told the court he only became so after he asked the union representatives to leave several times.

In her written decision Vandeventer upheld the union’s version of the story. “I find (Sonitrol’s) argument unconvincing,” wrote Vandeventer. “Steve Castello displayed easily discernible anger immediately upon encountering the union representatives and hearing their request for recognition.”

James Springfield, international representative for the IBEW, who was at the meeting, said the union approached Sonitrol only after employees had contacted the IBEW about representation.

Castello did not return phone calls and a spokesperson at Sonitrol’s corporate office said they were unable to comment.

The court papers also contain testimony from two Sonitrol employees who told the court Castello informed employees that the company “was not going to go for (union recognition),” and threatened to “bulldoze the place.”

Springfield said that Castello’s actions “terrified” the workers. “They’re scared to death they’re going to lose their jobs,” he said, adding that he has not had a similar problem involving other area companies, including other alarm companies, which employ union labor.

Springfield said the company’s response to the union was in violation of a federal law that grants employees the right to explore unionization without fear of reprisal from the employer. “He cannot retaliate because they chose to try and form a union,” said Springfield.

Springfield said after the 60-day period elapses, the union will continue talking with tworkers, and will make another attempt to organize if the employees still feel it is in their best interests to organize.