KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Associated Wholesale Grocers here was pondering its next move last week after the National Labor Relations Board urged it to reopen negotiations with ousted Teamsters.
A regional office of the NLRB found merit in all five unfair labor practice charges levied against AWG by Teamsters unions representing 1,200 workers let go by the grocery cooperative in April. In addition to pursuing the charges, the NLRB said it would seek authority from its board in Washington to pursue a federal injunction that would require AWG to put the union truckers and warehouse workers back to work at Associated's Kansas City and Springfield, Mo., warehouses while negotiations take place.
Doug Carolan, president and chief executive officer of AWG, told SN last week the company was "weighing our options." Associated would vigorously oppose an injunction request, Carolan added. "We fear it will only lead to more disruption."
Although Teamsters Locals 955 in Kansas City and 245 in Springfield called the NLRB's findings a victory, Associated insisted it was merely the first step in what will be a protracted legal battle.
Arthur Sloane, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Delaware, Newark, Del., told SN that both sides can take several cracks at overturning a decision of a regional labor board. If the board rules against AWG, it could appeal to federal district court and, potentially, to a U.S. court of appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
Sloane added, however, that the courts historically have "heavily sustained" rulings of the NLRB.
Should the union members return to work, Associated could be held responsible for back pay and benefits totaling about $1.5 million per week, Bobby Davidson, president of Local 955, told SN.
Teamsters charged AWG with five separate violations of the National Labor Relations Act on April 3, two days after being let go when AWG declared an impasse in new contract negotiations and hired outside companies to drive trucks and perform warehouse duties.
The NLRB found merit in all five allegations, which included improper subcontracting; failure to give proper notice of negotiations to officials; bad-faith bargaining; unlawfully declaring an impasse; and other violations deemed "inherently destructive" to negotiations, Rick Gardner, assistant business manager of Local 245, told SN.
The NLRB refused public comment on the case other than to issue a press release urging both sides to resume negotiations.
The board said "we have met extensively with both parties to obtain their evidence and positions on the allegations and have also obtained evidence from many neutral witnesses. We are affording this case the highest priority.
"Regardless of the ultimate determination on the merits of the case, we continue to encourage the parties to exhaust all efforts to resolve their differences without the need for the NLRB processes."
Gardner said the labor board's intention to seek an injunction to return the workers to the job "hardly ever happens," and was a good sign for the union. "I would hope this says to AWG that we're ready to sit down and talk. We all want to return to work."
Should the NLRB return the union members to work, it was unclear what would happen to the four companies AWG hired to perform the jobs in April. CS Integrated, a division of ProLogis, Denver, was hired to staff AWG's Kansas City warehouse, while Elite Logistics, a division of Tibbett & Britten, Toronto, took over the warehouse in Springfield. Independent trucking companies took over driving at both locations.
Officials at Tibbett & Britten and ProLogis were unavailable for comment last week. The companies have hired several hundred permanent workers since taking over, Carolan said.
AWG, which said it had to outsource in order to improve operations, generate cost savings and expand, claimed the union never took those concerns seriously. The company and the union were $70 million apart in negotiations.
Teamsters have been handbilling at Associated's member stores and picketing its warehouses ever since. Handbilling extended to stores in all 10 states served by AWG last week, Gardner said.
"It's at the point now where it's more than just us pointing fingers at them and them pointing fingers at us," he said. "Now the federal government's going to point the finger."