Two Minnesota Workers Win $30K Settlement from Teamster-Represented Employer

Unions long have bitterly opposed the Right to Work principle. But some, in their desire to generate dues, may deceive workers into joining. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 120 did – and so far hasn’t succeeded. On March 25, two Minnesota building materials employees announced a back pay settlement of more than $30,000 with a former employer for illegally firing them at the strong behest of Local 120. The workers, James Connolly and Charles Winter, had charged last spring that the company and the union falsely told them, several times, that union membership was a condition of employment. The case underscores organized labor’s reluctance to accept the Supreme Court’s Beck decision of over 30 years ago. A complaint filed by Connolly and Winter with the National Labor Relations Board remains active.

The saga began on April 9, 2019, when James Connolly, a recent hire at OMG Midwest’s Belle Plaine, Minnesota plant, emailed officials of the Blaine (suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul)-based Teamsters Local 120 inquiring if joining was necessary to keep his job. He made clear that he did not want to join. Later that day, a union official replied, “Sorry James, but yes, you do have to join.” This statement was false. In all 50 states, a private-sector employee may decline membership in a union and still keep his or her job; the U.S. Supreme Court had established this principle back in 1963 in NLRB v. General Motors. To be sure, in non-Right to Work states – such as Minnesota – a private-sector employee still may be compelled to pay partial dues (“agency fees”) to a union in lieu of joining. Yet even in those instances, ruled the Court in 1988 in Communications Workers of America v. Beck, such dues must reflect core union functions of collective bargaining, grievance procedures and contract administration. Notwithstanding, on May 1, a representative of OMG Midwest, an Ankeny, Iowa-based paving contractor with a Teamsters contract, reiterated this misinformation to Connolly. In response, Connolly emailed the company on May 9 emphasizing his reluctance to join. The next day OMG Midwest fired him.

Connolly wouldn’t go away, however. One June 19, he filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the company and Teamsters Local 120. Charles Winter joined him. In his complaint, Winter asserted that a Teamster representative had told him and other OMG Midwest employees at a company-wide meeting that union membership is necessary to get or keep a job. Seeking clarification from the company, he received an email repeating this misstatement. Winter replied on May 20 that he would not join. A company representative fired him that day via email. His charge also stated that the Teamsters membership form given to him lacked the mandated estimate of the reduced union fees that nonmembers must under Beck. Connolly and Winter each stated that union and company misinformation constituted a violation of Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects a worker’s “right to refrain from any or all” union activities. The Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation provided each worker with free legal assistance.

OMG Midwest and Teamsters Local 120, seeing an adverse NLRB ruling as a distinct possibility, cut a deal. And on March 25, Connolly and Winter announced that their former employer had agreed to a settlement reportedly worth a combined more than $30,000 in back pay. The agreement also orders OMG Midwest to remove termination references from the employees’ personnel files, post a “Notice of Beck rights” on its premises, and distribute the notice to all employees. Still, there remains unfinished business. In a press release, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation President Mark Mix remarked: “Although it’s good news that Mr. Connolly and Mr. Winter have won these settlements, which require OMG Midwest to make reparations for violating longstanding worker protections, the fact is that Mr. Connolly’s and Mr. Winter’s charges…are still pending. [National Labor Relations Board] Region 18 must swiftly prosecute Teamsters Local 120 so these two men’s rights can be fully vindicated.”

Teamsters Local 120, with about 12,000 members, is no stranger to corruption. Back in January 2013, International Brotherhood of Teamsters headquarters in Washington, D.C. filed charges against former local Vice President Bradley Slawson Sr. and his son, Bradley Slawson Jr., for stealing more than $450,000 in funds and other things of value from the local. A few months later, in April 2013, Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa, acting on a recommendation by the IBT’s court-approved overseer, the Independent Review Board, permanently banned the Slawsons from holding union leadership positions, and ordered them to pay tens of thousands of dollars to Local 120 as restitution. The current local leadership doesn’t look like much of an improvement.