Janesville55°

Second vote on union likely at RathGibson

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JAMES P. LEUTE
August 6, 2009
— Four months after a close election to form a union at RathGibson in Janesville, all indications are pointing toward a second election.

RathGibson is a worldwide maker of stainless steel, nickel and titanium tubing. In Janesville, the company has about 180 employees, some of whom serve other RathGibson operations.


In April, about 96 percent of eligible RathGibson production workers in Janesville voted in favor of representation by International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 139. The vote was 60-59 after three ballots were held out.


After the election, Local 139 argued to the National Labor Relations Board that the three ballots were cast by supervisors or clerical staff who were not eligible to vote.


The union argued that if the three ballots—presumably votes in opposition to the union—were kept out, the final tally would stand at 60-59 and the union would win the election. If the NLRB allowed the three ballots, the final vote would likely be 62-60 in opposition to union representation.


In a ruling earlier this week, the NLRB said the union did not provide enough evidence the three ballots in question should be discounted.


But the NLRB also ruled RathGibson engaged in objectionable conduct in one-on-one conversations with employees, including threats of reprisal and plant closure if the employees supported the union.


Therefore, the NLRB hearing officer recommended the April election be set aside and a new election scheduled.


Irv Gottschalk, the NLRB's regional director in Milwaukee, said both sides have two weeks to file an appeal to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. Barring any appeals, Gottschalk said his office would contact the parties Tuesday, Aug. 18, to schedule a second election.


Thad Steinke, organizing director for Local 139, said he expects RathGibson will appeal the hearing officer's ruling on the objectionable conduct in an effort to avoid a second election.


"Due process is being utilized here," Steinke said. "My local is proving that we're standing up for these people and doing what's right, and we will press forward."


John Fortin, RathGibson vice president and general manager in Janesville, said the company is weighing its appeal options.


"Overall, we are extremely pleased with the hearing officer's findings and conclusions," Fortin said. "We felt strongly from the beginning that those three ballots should be counted."


As to the union's charges of objectionable conduct, Fortin said the hearing officer sustained only five of the union's 25 or so allegations.


"While we're very pleased with the substantial number that she dismissed, we strongly feel that our conduct in the other five situations was valid," he said.


RathGibson workers approached the union in February with concerns that their wages and benefits were diluted by RathGibson's acquisitions of other companies.


Company officials countered that RathGibson has faced economic challenges and has changed some of its benefits to make them consistent from plant to plant and ensure the competitiveness of the local plant.


The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July in an effort to shed debt and position itself for long-term success.


Steinke said employees he's spoken with haven't changed their opinion of the need for union representation. Those employees, he said, are wondering why a top executive received a bonus when other employees were losing benefits and the company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.


RathGibson makes tubing for industries such as chemical, petrochemical, energy, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, medical, biotechnology and general commercial. Corporate headquarters are in Lincolnshire, Ill. In addition to Janesville, it has plants in New Jersey, Arkansas and Louisiana.


The company traces its roots to Rath Manufacturing, which Virgil Rath started in Janesville in 1952. The company has changed hands several times, most recently in 2007 when DLJ Merchant Banking Partners bought it for $440 million.



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