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LOS ANGELES — Attorneys and female garment workers appeared in a federal appeals court in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, claiming that the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Workers cost them their jobs by forcing their employer, Sorrento Coats, out of business.

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The women alleged UNITE retaliated against them for trying to decertify the union in early 1997 when they were employed by the San Bernardino-based outerwear maker. Sorrento filed bankruptcy in December 1998 and soon after closed permanently.

The workers claim Sorrento had to shut down because UNITE forced the contractor’s primary work supplier, M. Shapiro & Co., a unionized Los Angeles coat manufacturer, to stop doing business with the contractor.

“They prevented the work for 18 months,” said Linda Klibanow, an attorney for the workers. The main legal issue is “whether a union, with substantial power over workers’ employment, may deliberately shut down the employer in retribution for the workers’ efforts to free themselves of a union.”

The 25 garment workers are suing the union for undisclosed sums to compensate for losing their jobs, as well as to set a precedent that a union can’t retaliate for decertification efforts, according to Klibanow.

Michael Rubin, UNITE’s San Francisco-based attorney, said the union is protected by the Garment Industry Proviso to the National Labor Relations Act and can apply pressure to a contractor by agreeing with the manufacturer not to send work to that contractor where the union’s goal is to organize.

A federal judge sided with the union and threw out the case on April 20, 2001.

“Sorrento was behind the whole thing,” Rubin said. “Sorrento encouraged the employees to file the lawsuit. It also encouraged the employers to file the decertification petition. The real dispute here is between the union and the employer, not between the union and its members.”

A decision from the Court of Appeals is not expected for several months, according to attorneys on both sides.