Dissenting Employees Sue Wisconsin Local for Exorbitant Fines

A union has the right to run its own affairs, but at the same time it has to play by the rules. And one of those rules is to refrain from imposing excessive fines and penalties upon dissenting members – or indeed any fines if those members decide to become ex-members. Unfortunately, Sheet Metal Workers International Union Local 18 doesn’t adhere to this view. Late last year the union imposed a $30,000 fine on each of four members who earlier had resigned in protest. But with free legal aid provided by the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the workers, all employees of Pre-Heat, Inc., located in the village of Oostburg, Wisconsin (near Sheboygan), are mounting a defense. On January 7, they filed an unfair labor practices suit with the National Labor Relations Board against the union for levying exorbitant and illegal retaliatory fines. It’s a case certain to test the scope of union power.   


The case originated in a strike called by leaders of Sheet Metal Workers Local 18 against Pre-Heat. The walkout ended two months ago. Four union members, already dissatisfied with their leadership, decided that another kind of walkout – from their union – would be an appropriate response. Led by Patrick Keefe, they resigned prior to returning to work. And they proceeded to go further, gathering signatures from fellow workers to hold an NLRB-supervised decertification election. Typically, such efforts are uphill battles. But a majority of workers signed the petition. Sufficiently impressed, Pre-Heat, Inc. withdrew its recognition of the local as the employees’ collective-bargaining representative. 


The union, predictably, was not pleased. Its officials convened an internal hearing to hear the case. Given that the workers, now ex-members, were not subject to discipline, it seemed like a classic kangaroo court. No matter. Union agent Patrick Landgraf accused the employees of violating the union’s constitution. In a written statement, he claimed Keefe and his colleagues “selfishly crossed” the picket line for “this rat contractor,” thus preventing the union from obtaining a new contract. The statement omitted the fact that the union no longer enjoyed support from Pre-Heat employees. The workers chose not to attend the “trial.” In their absence, the local’s executive board found them guilty and fined them a combined $120,000. Each had to pay up within 30 days. But rather than pay, the workers contacted the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation for help in filing a complaint with the NLRB.

This would appear to be an open-and-shut case. Under law, the local may impose sanctions against current members, but not ex-members. And regardless of amount, it’s hard to justify the imposition of any fines. It’s worth noting that Wisconsin is a non-Right to Work state. In other words, private-sector union members cannot withhold their dues and remain at their job; they are subject to being fired under a “union security agreement.” If Wisconsin were a Right to Work state, the employees likely would have declined to join, or once in, to remain. NLRB should recognize the dangerous precedent of allowing the fines to stand. (National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, 1/7/08).