Justices back job rights of union agents Wis. company's flat ban on organizers disallowed

November 29, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A labor union's paid organizer has a legal right to try to get hired by a company in order to be in a better position -- on the inside -- to persuade the firm's other employees to unionize, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.

Rejecting the argument that management should be able to keep organizers off its payroll, the court said labor law allows union agents to qualify as employees.

The law's definition of employees is very broad, the court noted in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer. It is, in fact, "broad enough to include those company workers whom a union also pays for organizing," he added.

The court ruled specifically that an organizer is entitled to wear two hats at once: as a regular worker, paid by the company, and as an organizer, paid by the union.

Dealing with the case of an electrical contractor at a Minnesota job site that refused to hire, or fired, workers after learning they were union agents, Justice Breyer said the company could expect those employees to do what they were told while performing their regular tasks.

While wiring sockets or laying cable, an electrical worker "is subject to the control of the company employer," even if that same worker during lunch breaks or after-hours turns to the task of enlisting co-workers in a union, Justice Breyer said.

The decision upheld the position of the National Labor Relations Board and overturned a federal appeals court ruling against the board.

The case arose six years ago, when an Appleton, Wis., company, Town & Country Electric Inc., which is nonunion, won a contract to do electrical work at a paper mill in Little Falls, Minn.

Since Minnesota law required that at least one electrician licensed in the state be on the job site for every two out-of-staters, and none of Town & Country's own employees had a Minnesota license, the company sought to recruit Minnesotans for the Little Falls project.

A local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers learned of the recruiting effort and sent paid organizers to apply for jobs, with instructions to carry on organizing if they did get hired. Ultimately, one did, but later was fired, while 10 others were turned away as applicants.

The rebuffed organizers complained to the NLRB that the company's refusal was an unfair labor practice since they had a right to become employees and, as employees, to engage in unionizing activities. The board agreed.

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