Sysco Racks Up 79 Violations Over Union Vote
Above Photo: Kheel Center/Flickr
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GRAND RAPIDS, MI — George Brewster was making a delivery to a Northeast Side bar when he noticed his supervisor parked nearby, watching him.
What Brewster didn’t know was that his Sysco supervisor was apparently setting him up to lose his temper by hiding Brewster’s truck keys under his seat while he was inside the restaurant. This provoked a profanity-laced outburst by Brewster, which led to his 2015 firing, according to court documents.
The crux of this setup: Brewster had been identified by company management as a potential Teamsters union organizer.
Brewster’s firing is among 79 labor practice violations made by Sysco leading up to a failed 2015 union vote, concluded Michael Rosas, an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board, following a hearing last year.
Most of the violations involve the company threatening, intimidating and unlawfully punishing workers during an organizing campaign.
The judge ordered the country’s largest food distributor to reinstate Brewster, stop threatening employees and immediately begin negotiating a contract with the Grand Rapids-based Teamsters Local 406.
The issue has now landed in federal court in Grand Rapids because the NLRB is requesting an injunction to force Sysco to immediately follow Rosas’ orders while his decision is reviewed by the federal agency’s top board. A final decision could take several months or even years.
Many offenses reached the level of “hallmark violations” which meant they were “significant in that they are reasonably likely to have an effect on a substantial percentage of the work force (sic) and to remain in employees’ memories for a long time,” Rosas wrote in his decision.
The company filed a June 25 motion requesting the NLRB dismiss the case, saying there was no evidence presented during the hearing that showed the “alleged unfair labor practices” hindered the union vote.
“No one claimed, for example, that attendance at union meetings dropped, that the volume of union literature in the plant decreased, or that other expressions of support for the Union decreased,” Sysco attorneys claimed in the document.
The company declined to comment for this story.
The order for Sysco to begin negotiating with the union and the federal lawsuit are unusual for the agency tasked with protecting worker rights, said John Beck, a professor who teaches labor relations at Michigan State University.
It’s an indication of how seriously NLRB is taking Sysco’s workplace offenses.
“I would say 79 violations is egregious. That’s why you’ve got a straight bargaining order instead of a new vote,” Beck said.
Two months before the May 7, 2015 election, 99 workers — a majority of the workforce — signed authorization cards so the vote could take place. But less than half of about 160 total employees — 71 workers — voted for the union. It failed by 10 votes.
Sysco’s extensive unfair labor practices “were sufficiently severe so as to erode the majority support that the union had acquired,” Rosas wrote.
The violations include threats to close the plant, impose more stringent work rules, remove seniority status and reduce work hours.
But the company wasn’t just cited for threats. Handing out early safety bonuses to 49 employees in the weeks leading up to the union vote was deemed a violation.
The employees who voted on whether to unionize are a mix of truck drivers and warehouse workers. Most work at the Grand Rapids-area facility, at 3700 Sysco Court SE in Cascade Township. A smaller portion are split between depots in Alanson, Cadillac, Kalkaska, West Branch, Niles and White Pigeon.
The Grand Rapids operation is one of 70 companies in the United States owned by parent corporation Sysco, a publicly traded company with $30 billion in annual sales.
Sysco leaders warned the Grand Rapids operation would lose sales to competitors such as Gordon Food Service, a longtime company with a hometown advantage. The Wyoming-based food distributor has a non-union workforce like most other West Michigan businesses.
Sysco is waiting for Rosas’ decision to be reviewed by the National Labor Relations Board, which can uphold all or part of the decision or dismiss it entirely.
The board’s decisions can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Sysco Grand Rapids’ hearing took place over 14 days from May to October 2016.
The number of violations and their circumstances warranted the NLRB to take legal action against Sysco after the hearing, said Terry A. Morgan, NLRB regional director, of why the federal agency filed an injunction on July 11 in federal court in Grand Rapids.
The agency’s 152-page legal filing details the accusations against Sysco’s West Michigan leadership team. Brewster’s firing was part of the filing.
Brewster, who began working for Sysco in 2001, has yet to get his job back since he was fired in February 2015.
The order will cost the company at least $200,000 in back pay and benefits, according to the union.
“Sysco does not seem like they are in any hurry to end this,” Brewster told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press. “They just keep spending stockholders’ money on this fight that they know they will lose.”