NEW YORK — A UNITE campaign to organize workers at a Brylane Inc. distribution center in Indianapolis has become heated, with the union filing several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.
The four outstanding NLRB complaints allege the catalog retailer is unfairly discriminating against pro-union employees and supporting anti-union employees.
A group of about 150 Brylane employees, local community activists and union organizers aired their gripes at a meeting on the subject Tuesday night, according to Mary Kay Devine, UNITE’s field director in Indianapolis.
Workers and labor organizers said more than half the approximately 1,000 Brylane workers in Indianapolis have signed union cards since the organizing campaign started in October. They are asking the company to allow a neutral third party to conduct a card-check process to determine if a majority of workers has accepted the union, rather than wait for a NLRB-conducted election.
Audrey Wathen, senior vice president of human resources at Brylane, said Wednesday that the company was not opposed to unions — it has other unionized facilities — but saw no reason to deviate from standard procedure.
“We recognize people’s right to join unions,” she said. “We feel that the National Labor Relations Board is a process that has been put in place to allow a secret-ballot election and we honor that and recognize that as a vehicle that will allow only the employees of Brylane to make that decision.”
She said employees of the Indianapolis distribution center in the past have voted down proposals to unionize the plant, but could not offer specifics as to when those elections were held.
Roger LaForge, assistant regional director of the NLRB in Indianapolis, told WWD it has been at least seven years and probably longer since his organization sponsored elections at the plant in question.
Doug Rhoton, an eight-year employee of the distribution center who supports the union, said he was intimidated by a company security guard while handing out pro-union literature in the company parking lot in October. He was not on the clock at the time.
“The very first day that I was out in Brylane in the parking lot area, I was approached by an [off-duty] police officer who was working for Brylane, for security,” he said in a phone interview this week. “This officer got out of his car, he approached me and told me that what I was doing will get me fired. I was threatened and intimidated by that.”
He claimed that on another occasion, while he was making a pro-union speech in the company cafeteria, a member of management remarked: “How about if I just go get my gun and take care of him?” Rhoton said he did not hear the remark at the time it was made, but was later told about it by two co-workers. That incident is the basis of the first complaint filed to the NLRB.
Rhoton said some of the advantages the workers are hoping to achieve with the union’s support are better raises, a reinstatement of the company pension plan and improved safety standards.
The other standing complaints charge Brylane discriminated against worker Greta Casey after she wore a union button to work and was told that if she wanted to be promoted she’d have to cease supporting the union. In another incident, management interrogated employee Martha Blankenship about her support for the union and “promised improvements” if she would change her mind. UNITE also charged Brylane with offering preferential treatment to a group of anti-union employees.
Brylane’s Watchen said that NLRB has not yet ruled on any of those claims, adding, “filing the charge is not proof.”
The NLRB’s LaForge said UNITE has withdrawn six charges against Brylane that it filed in the fall. Some of the four outstanding charges are repeats of the earlier complaints.
UNITE’s Devine said the union withdrew some of the charges to take more time to substantiate them.
Brylane’s Wathen added: “It is very interesting that the NLRB is being recognized as the agency to communicate with in terms of filing charges with Brylane as a company, but they have not been petitioning to file an election.”
Lawyer William Groth of Fillenwarth, Dennerline, Groth and Towe, who spoke at the meeting, said Brylane’s reluctance to allow a card check showed a desire to avoid unionization.
“Delay gives the employer an opportunity to pigeonhole workers individually and in small groups as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy,” Groth said.