NLRB rules foreign electricians have right to join union

Workers brought to U.S. under visa program run by Greenbelt company

October 09, 2001|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that foreign workers brought to the United States under a much-investigated cultural exchange program run by a Maryland firm have the right to organize and join a union.

In a 12-page ruling, Wayne R. Gold, regional director of the NLRB, concluded that the electricians brought to the United States by USA-IT of Greenbelt have a right to vote on whether they want to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Under Gold's order, USA-IT must provide the union with a list of all its employees in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia. Jon Newman, the attorney representing the IBEW, said yesterday that after the membership list is provided, a date will be set for an election covering the Mid-Atlantic region.

The NLRB still must decide whether the election will be by mail ballot or in person.

The ruling comes as the program run by USA-IT remains the subject of a joint investigation by the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Justice Department. The inquiry was launched after questions about the legality of the USA-IT program were raised by the IBEW.

The union has charged that the use of the foreign workers violates the laws and regulations governing the J-1 cultural exchange visa program and that the foreign workers are being used as cheap substitutes for American workers who would command higher wages. USA-IT obtained the J-1 visas through nonprofit agencies, including the YMCA of Greater New York.

USA-IT, headed by Diego Asencio, a former high-ranking State Department official, has brought about 700 electricians to the United States from Bulgaria, Romania and other Eastern European countries.

Many of the workers claim they were deceived about their job assignments, pay and benefits.

The union contends that the pay for the USA-IT workers is less than half that earned by their American counterparts.

USA-IT officials could not be reached yesterday for comment.

During hearings on the union petition last summer, company officials said that an election should not be held because USA-IT did not actually employ the workers, who are assigned to electrical contracting firms across the country.

Company lawyers also argued that because the workers are temporary and can only stay in the United States for a maximum of 18 months, they are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

In his decision, Gold concluded that USA-IT did meet the legal definitions of an employer because the firm "sufficiently controls the employer-employee relationship to enable effective and meaningful bargaining to take place."

He cited the testimony of a company official who acknowledged that USA-IT could raise the $10-an-hour wage paid to the electricians if the company were willing to cut its $5-an-hour administrative fee.

Gold also rejected the temporary-assignment argument, noting that the departure of the workers was not "imminent."

He also rejected the company claim that if there was a union election, it would have to be on a nationwide basis rather than being limited to the Mid-Atlantic region.

During the summer hearings, USA-IT officials testified that they had stopped bringing additional workers into the country because of the problems created by the IBEW complaints.

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