BY ALEX HOEFT & BECCA LOUX | Moonshine Ink
The single sheet of paper, hung on a bulletin board among operating rules and invasive weed awareness posters, announced that Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency management interfered with employee rights. Required to be displayed where employee notices are posted and sent in electronic form as well, the paper summarizes a 69-page report from California’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which oversees public sector collective bargaining. The quasi-judicial agency ruled that TTSA had illegally exhibited anti-union behavior, including retaliation against an employee who openly supported the effort to unionize.
That posted cease and desist ruling is the tip of the iceberg, a visible marker of a long drawn-out saga, as staff and management of the public sanitation agency and wastewater treatment facility have gone back and forth over an attempt at unionization for more than two years.
In fact, the debate and controversy over TTSA union factions has come and gone in fits and starts for decades — an original union formed in the ‘90s, and then disbanded when Stationary Engineers Local 39 submitted a disclaimer of interest.
Today, the disputes have seeped out of the board meeting room walls and infiltrated the halls of TTSA’s campus; reports of bullying and intimidation have come from both sides of the unionizing debate and descriptions of a toxic work culture and general unrest have frittered around town for years.
THE SPARK IN THE HAY: TTSA BOARD MEETING, JUNE 2017
Act one of TTSA’s 21st century unionization efforts took place in 2017 and is documented in Moonshine’s report, It Rolls Downhill, by Meghan Herbst.
Employees, who reportedly felt the agency was becoming increasingly indifferent to its workforce, decided to unionize and started reaching out for representation in September 2016. LaRue Griffin assumed the role of general manager in July 2015, about 14 months before union efforts began.
From It Rolls Downhill: “We feel that this is our only option for a secure, fair, and respectable working environment,” said Jeff Claussen, an operations shift supervisor at TTSA, in a speech given during the May 2016 board meeting. In it, Claussen said that during the previous two years an “atmosphere of uncertainty” created by employee terminations and a lack of transparency caused employees to feel “dispensable and disrespected.”
In February 2017, TTSA employees in a proposed bargaining unit that includes the maintenance and operations department, voted in the presence of a third party to seek representation from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Chapter 1245, which represents skilled trade jobs throughout Northern California and Nevada.
IBEW lead organizer Rick Thompson sent a petition for recognition to Griffin on April 5, saying a majority of TTSA employees expressed interest in forming a union.
The board finally discussed the matter at its June 14 meeting, but it seemed the effort to unionize was not a welcome addition to the agenda, and the board of directors indicated a limited understanding of pertinent labor laws.
Negotiations dragged on … and kept dragging on for the next two years. Much of the discussion centers on bargain- ing units, with confusion about what agency policies govern the process.
IBEW submitted several complaints to PERB over the years, starting on July 10, 2017, alleging unfair labor practice charges against the agency.
PERB’s recent full decision document cites 13 claims filed against the agency that were mostly dismissed due to either an expired statute of limitations or a lack of evidence. A 14th complaint filed by IBEW was withdrawn by the union prior to PERB’s decision. But PERB ruled that there was enough evidence to show anti-union and/or retaliatory actions on the part of TTSA management in three instances.
TTSA, which had an opportunity to appeal the PERB decision, chose not to.
THE FINAL SCORE
To Griffin, his management team, and the board, it seems to be a numbers game they’re winning: Yes, the agency was deemed inappropriately retaliatory in some of its union comments and actions, but 10 other allegations were dismissed, and one was withdrawn by IBEW during the hearing process.
“Administrative Law Judge [Robin] Wesley [of the PERB board] found in favor of TTSA on all but three of the remaining allegations and dismissed IBEW’s complaint as to those 11 allegations,” Griffin told Moonshine via email. (Griffin referred to 11 allegations, but the one pulled by IBEW makes the final count of complaints dismissed as 10.)
Thompson disputed the idea of an agency victory based on numbers alone. The com- plaints made by IBEW that were dismissed were because they weren’t fully evidenced and/or timely, and include such actions as an anti-union flier and petition, anti-union speech, and other specific retaliation allegations from management to rank-and-file staff.
“Because the burden of proof is on the complainant here (IBEW 1245), it’s more that the dismissed complaints are removed from consideration in the final decision over whether or not the agency interfered with their employees’ rights,” Thompson wrote in an email. “The judge’s ruling finds that three of the complaints brought against the agency by IBEW were sufficient evidence of the agency’s interference in the rights of the employees to organize and the right of IBEW to represent them.”
The back-and-forth over the PERB deliberations has cost the sanitation agency more than employee morale. Griffin shared that TTSA “incurred $66,460 in attorneys’ fees to prepare for and defend … at the five-day PERB hear- ing, and $6,726.78 in costs. The costs were for hearing transcripts, hearing exhibits, postage expenses, and travel expenses.”
Overall, Griffin said in an emailed statement, “TTSA respects the PERB process, takes the decision seriously, and plans to abide by the decision.” Griffin declined to be interviewed, which he also did when Moonshine was reporting on the union effort in 2017.
The three instances PERB ruled had enough evidence of anti-union behavior are as follows:
Complaint Number One
During the June 2017 board meeting, director Cox made additional comments about unionization, describing what he saw as a vocal minority of union supporters “dragging along the majority.” He also questioned the process that established what Thompson said was a staff majority of union support, and called for a vote by all employees (thus disregarding the standard process of a union card check). PERB’s ruling identified Cox’s comments as ones that, as the decision reads, “reasonably cause at least slight harm by tending to discourage employees from pursuing union representation”; aka, lawful interference.
Complaint Number Two
Between the May and June 2017 board meetings, another board member, Oz Butterfield, was overheard discussing TTSA staff’s previous union efforts in the 1990s. He’s noted in the PERB ruling as saying something along the lines of, “[w]ell, we had the union here 20 years ago. And after a few years, they didn’t get raises. And shortly after that, they voted it out. And I don’t know if [GM Griffin] has got it in him [to say no], but we’ll see.”
PERB ruled this statement as another intent to discourage pro-union employees.
Complaint Number Three
Among other staff members, a woman we’ll name Ashley, as she wishes to remain anonymous due to potential management and board retaliation, addressed the board her speaking out at the board meeting, a protected activity under the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, which established collective bargaining as a unionizing tool in 1968, resulted in backlash from administration in the months that followed.
The retaliation came in the form of her staff evaluations: a change in ratings (from ‘competent’ down to ‘needs improvement’, etc.) between supervisors, notably after Ashley’s pro-unionization remarks.
Ashley appealed her annual evaluation (from Oct. 1, 2016 to Oct. 1, 2017) with Griffin on Oct. 25, 2017, but he concluded that the five “needs improvement” rankings out of 34 were a fair assessment. On Dec. 8, she claimed retaliation with TTSA counsel for her support of unionization efforts. The resulting independent investigation by TTSA also found insufficient evidence of adverse action against Ashley.
IBEW filed an amended complaint on April 12, 2018, to include Ashley’s evaluation experience. Involved parties participated in a formal hearing in Sacramento during late summer 2018.
On March 30 of this year, PERB issued its final decision at the June 2017 meeting, sharing her support for unionizing. Ashley claimed that on IBEW’s charges, disagreeing with Griffin’s conclusion and the agency’s investigation regarding Ashley: “TTSA violated the MMBA by interfering with protected employee rights based on statements made by two TTSA board members, and by retaliating against [Ashley] when it issued her a negative performance evaluation.”
A CULTURE OF HARASSMENT
These three complaints reflect a more pervasive culture of harassment and retaliation, says Thompson. Even since the hearing process began, Thompson said he spoke with multiple agency employees who say they’ve “brought a number of complaints of what they feel is retaliation and what they feel is unfair targeting from management to them.”
A current employee at the agency, who also asked to remain anonymous, said Ashley wasn’t the only one to file a complaint at this time. “There were a bunch of other employees that had all filed various complaints about a bunch of things and everybody got memos all saying, ‘Nothing to see here, nothing happened, you weren’t harassed, you weren’t retaliated against.’”
Despite the posted PERB ruling, this employee who also filed a complaint with the state board, said there hasn’t been action to assure no harassment or retaliation or anti-union actions in the future — it’s simply words on a piece of paper versus an engrained practice.
“Just because you stand up there and say ‘oh, we’re not anti-union,’ doesn’t mean you aren’t supporting practices that in effect are anti-union and do diminish the rights of the employees,” the employee said. “You have this image of people [squashing union activity] being evil, like they’re petting the hairless cat and cackling, whatever. In reality, it’s not like that. Everybody feels justified in how they’re doing things. From our perspective as employees, we have no voice.”
And yet, at least one TTSA employee told Moonshine Ink that intimidation isn’t happening one-sided, but also some of those seeking to unionize are harassing those who don’t support collective bargaining. This employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, claims that he and other employees have received threats of violence.
“There’s a whole other side to this,” he said, citing a “vulgar note” on his car, which he attributes to union hopefuls, though there is no evidence this is the case. He also said nails were once put in his car tires. (Again, no proof this was in reference to his anti-union stance, but that is what he believes.) The employee feels these acts were precipitated by his speaking out multiple times in support of management and against union efforts at board meetings.
In his mind, the union supporters’ “speech didn’t add up” in 2017.
“TTSA is going through changes,” he said. “There’s new management that’s heading in the right direction. There are people who don’t like that direction.”
The employee claims other staff at TTSA who share his views have also experienced in-group pressure and harassment, but are too “spooked to speak out against these guys.”
“There’s a group here that if you’re not with them, you’re against them,” the anonymous TTSA employee said, and though management hired an outside specialist, Ileana Vassiliou of Creating Effective Organizations, in fall 2016 to improve TTSA’s workplace culture, it is “not a fun place to work … I feel like there’s a target on my back.”
THE UNION’S HORIZON
While PERB deliberated, actual unionization efforts were put on the backburner. But based on conversations he’s had with pro-union TTSA staff, Thompson said there’s still interest in forming one.
“We’re in the process of assessing the revival of the organizing effort — not that it has been put to rest in the meantime, it actually has been kind of simmering,” he said. “We are looking forward to proceeding.”
Back in 2017, the majority of staff in favor of unionization hoped for a wall-to-wall bargaining group, one single group that excluded management staff and confidential employees.
Griffin explained that when IBEW Local 1245 submitted a petition for the wall-to-wall bargaining unit, it was not in accordance with the agency’s Resolution 4-93, which established the layout of bargaining units.
“Therefore, I rejected the petition,” Griffin wrote to Moonshine. “The two units established in Resolution 4-93 were (1) management, supervisory, confidential, clerical and professional; and (2) general employee. Professional employees were entitled to be rep- resented separately from nonprofessional employees.”
TTSA’s Resolution 10-2017 upheld Griffin’s decision to reject the petition for recognition, as well as IBEW’s appeal of his decision.
The number of proposed bargaining units has been a sticking point and according to Thomspon back in 2017 is “just a delay tactic.” The original petition requested one (minus management) and the agency countered with four.
Now this year, in an April 15 meeting, the board updated its preferred employee group- ing to three, made up by “the general unit, making up pretty much operators, maintenance mechanics, and the administrative staff,” said human resources administrator Vicky Lufrano during the meeting. “Then we have a professional technical unit and then a supervisory managerial unit.”
Since the original majority of staff in favor of unionization was counted back in 2017, now three years old, a new count will need to take place. But the original purpose still remains: an unbiased audience to go to bat for staff.
“I think really the unionization effort, from everybody that I’ve talked to, was people wanted somewhere to take their grievances, somebody who was not in that biased position so if you did feel you were being harassed you had somewhere to take it,” said the pro-union anonymous staff member. “And the union felt like the only option for that because there wasn’t anywhere else to go.”
In his email statement, Griffin said that TTSA respects the employees’ right to organize, as well as their right to determine representation by an employee organization like IBEW.
“The agency recently adopted TTSA Resolution No. 2-2020, which provides the procedures for the administration of employer-employee relations between the agency and any employee organizations,” he wrote. “Staff was able to provide feedback on the resolution during its preparation and prior to its adoption.”
The resolution supersedes Resolution No. 4-93, adopted in June 1993, and makes specific changes to what bargaining units are permissible. Should staff want to again move forward in forming a union, Thompson referred to the resolution as a roadmap to do just that.
Regardless of whether unionizing staff stick with IBEW or not, Thompson said one of the organization’s fundamental goals is to assist anyone forming a union. Thus, IBEW holds no expectation for repayment of guidance nor legal representation during the PERB hearing from the TTSA staff members involved.
“[TTSA staff have] been willing to testify, they’ve been willing to write letters, they’ve essentially acted like a union before they’ve been a union,” he furthered. “To me, these workers are part of the labor movement. They may not have an official IBEW member card or anything like that, they may not have a union card, but to me, they’re union because they act and breathe union.”