NEW YORK — Ruling that an employer cannot call for an election to determine whether to unionize a facility before the union has asked to be recognized, the National Labor Relations Board on Monday struck down a petition by Brylane L.P. to hold a secret-ballot election at its Indianapolis distribution center.

The catalog retailer threw an unexpected twist in the 11-month-long organizational campaign last month when it petitioned the NLRB to conduct a secret-ballot election — a rare move for an employer. That request followed months of UNITE demonstrations that targeted the distribution center, the company’s New York offices and other fashion houses owned by French conglomerate Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, Brylane’s parent company.

NLRB regional director Roberto Chavarry wrote in the decision that since UNITE has not yet formally asked for an election, Brylane cannot beat it to the punch. His reasoning was that "otherwise, employers might file petitions early in organizational campaigns in an effort to obtain a vote rejecting the union before the union has had a reasonable opportunity to organize."

UNITE officials have been pushing to have the union recognized through a card-check procedure, in which a third party would count the number of union cards signed by the 740 employees.

Both procedures are considered legally valid.

UNITE officials called the decision a victory.

"This puts the ball back into Brylane’s court," said Mary Kay Devine, a field director with the union. "Now what are they going to do? Are they going to continue to fight the employees…or are they going to hopefully pursue the card check with neutrality?"

Audrey Wathen, senior vice president of human resources at Brylane, called the decision "disappointing."

"We don’t know at this point what our next step will be, but we’re exploring all of our options and looking at alternatives," she said. "Our position hasn’t changed — that every single person who works in the Indianapolis facility has the right to decide for themselves."

The company has until Sept. 20 to request a review of the decision.

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