Spokane Journal of Business

Unfair labor practice filings in Spokane buck trend

Complaints decline here while rising at state, national levels

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Not long after returning to his hometown of Spokane six months ago, Chris Foster, a labor law attorney at Randall Danskin PS, wanted to know how many unfair labor practice filings have been submitted here in the last few years.

Through the Washington, D.C.-based National Labor Relations Board, he was surprised to discover what he thinks are a low number of unfair labor practices here and a relatively large number across the state.

Foster requested NLRB records for the largest cities in the area, including Spokane, Coeur d’ Alene, Post Falls, Airway Heights, and Fairchild Air Force Base.

Inland Northwest workers filed a total of 18 unfair labor practices in 2013, 38 in 2014, 26 in 2015, and 24 last year. Of the 106 total filings, 33, or 31 percent, were submitted by individual workers not affiliated with a union, the NLRB statistics show.

Excluding the numbers here, across the rest of Washington state, 542 unfair labor practices were filed in 2013, 443 in 2014, 425 in 2015 before rising to 461 last year, say NLRB statistics.

Spokane, the state’s second largest city, accounts for just 5 percent of all unfair labor practice claims filed in Washington.

Nationwide, the NLRB says it has seen a 5 percent increase in unfair labor practice filings from 2014 to 2016. The NLRB received 20,415 unfair labor complaints in 2014 and 21,426 last year.

Unfair labor practice filings are actions that can be taken by employees and unions, as well as employers, that are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act and other labor laws. The act prohibits employers and unions from taking certain actions that would interfere with employees’ rights.

An example of an unfair labor practice by a union would be coercing employees in the free exercise of their right not to support a union. Meanwhile, an example of unfair labor practice on the part of an employer would be their interfering with an employee’s right to organize, join, or assist a union.

Foster says the NLRB in the last seven years has made it easier for workers to unionize and file complaints by streamlining its rules and using online services to expedite those processes.

In 2011, the NLRB issued a decision saying unions could form from smaller groups of employees without having to campaign to a larger workforce. Now, a union can represent a unit of as few as two people.

Between 2013 and last year, the NLRB and unions developed smartphone applications aiming to inform workers of rights and assist with union election drives.

That, however, hasn’t triggered an increase in unions or grievances here, data suggest.

Dan Wilson, president of the Spokane Valley-based United Steel Workers Local 338, says he’s not surprised that Spokane sees less union activity than the rest of the state and bucks national trends.

“Seattle’s a booming economy with Boeing, refineries, and steel industries. In a big market with a lot of union members, you’re going to utilize the NLRB in a way that you won’t in Spokane,” says Wilson.

He adds, “Our economy is slower with fewer employees. Most of the companies we interact with here are well versed in labor law and are very capable of working toward resolutions.”

Wilson also thinks unfair labor filings are low here because most non-union workers don’t know the NLRB is available to help them if they believe they’ve been unfairly treated.

“The average working guy has access to the NLRB, and he doesn’t even know it,” he says.

Meanwhile, David Hawkins, the business manager and financial secretary of Laborers Local 238 here, which represents on average between 600 to 900 construction laborers annually, says the Spokane market is different compared with other areas of the state.

“Our membership base is still somewhat of a small community. Also, our region doesn’t have a lot of prime contractors. There are more sub-contractors than there are general contractors,” Hawkins says.

What that creates, says Hawkins, is an opportunity for unions to build a better rapport between members and employers.

“The majority of the time we can work to a solution with our members and the employers before the crisis hits,” Hawkins says.

The NLRB, which operates with an annual budget of $274 million, investigates labor complaints across the country on behalf of both non-union and union workers. Workers can submit an unfair labor claim online without the help of an attorney. The NLRB has 1,600 agents working in communities across the country, the agency says.

Foster says his practice at Randall Danskin is mostly dedicated to advising employers with local unionized workforces, and employers facing the prospect of organized union drives among their workers.

Foster, 32, graduated from Gonzaga Preparatory High School in 2004. He earned his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 2011.

Prior to moving home, Foster worked as an attorney for the global law firm of DLA Piper at a branch office in San Francisco.

“I dealt with a lot of strike and picket-line activity in the Bay Area when I lived there the past six or so years,” he says.

He says there was an antagonistic relationship between labor and management throughout Northern California. 

Foster says, “There are strong employee-employer relations here. Owners and managers of companies seem to really care about their workforces.”

Additionally, Foster says, the “political tendency here is more conservative and Republican,” which traditionally tends to be more averse to unionization.

“And maybe there are some experiences where union activity didn’t go as well as planned,” he says.

Foster points to the example of the 1995 worker’s strike at Kaiser Aluminum Corp. in 1995. In February that year, workers at Kaiser Aluminum plants in Mead and Trentwood walked off the job for the first time in the company’s then 49-year history.

At that time, more than 2,000 Spokane-area members of the United Steelworkers of America joined another 1,000 workers at Kaiser plants in Tacoma, Ohio, and Louisiana in rejecting a proposed new contract.

As for Foster’s practice, he says he’s been busy since returning to Spokane.

“There is a lot of interest in companies in the area of compliance to make sure they know what the laws are,” Foster says.

“We have a high number of small- to medium-sized companies where the managers and owners have good relations with their employees and legitimately care how they’re doing,” he says. “That’s unique, and maybe that’s just the Spokane way.”

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