By Michael Howell
Some members of the local Laborers’ International Union, Local #1686, all of them employees of the Ravalli County Road and Bridge Department, are alleging that the county has engaged and continues to engage in unfair and deceptive labor practices and intimidation and harassment.
Back in January of this year a majority of the union members engaged the legal services of Antonioli and Wade P.C. to handle their claims. The result was a letter, dated January 6, 2012, in which Attorney Stacey Weldele-Wade presented the claims to county officials.
In the letter Weldele-Wade states that her client’s claims include collusion between union representatives Kim Rickard, Jay Reardon, Jerry Wilde, and Ron Stoltz and J.R. Iman of the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners as well as Robert Jenni, the Ravalli County Human Resources Director.
Based on information provided by her clients, Weldele-Wade states, “Robert Jenni has also been intimately involved in the collusion. Both Robert Jenni and Commissioner Stoltz have utilized their positions to coerce information and intimidate various members of the union with the threats of possible job loss.”
“Commissioner Stoltz, in particular, has improperly interfered with, coerced, and intimidated my clients and others,” wrote Weldele-Wade.
In the letter an offer is made to try and work things out “with or without a mediator” to resolve the issues without expensive legal action or unwanted publicity.
“However,” the letter states, “we must insist that Ravalli County immediately cease and desist from any further collusion with various union representatives or any further conduct that harasses, coerces, or is intimidating to union membership.”
The problem now, according to the new union steward, Crystal Dale, is that the county never worked with them to address the problems and the situation has only gotten worse.
Dale said that when no response was received from the county to their concerns, they went over the head of the local union reps, whom they viewed as ‘compromised’, and took their grievances to union officials in Seattle.
“We got help,” said Dale. As a result they got representation from higher up the ladder and a lawyer to attend their last meeting with the county on contract negotiations.
Last year the union members elected to keep their existing contract and not ask for any changes. The commissioners responded, however, that they were interested in making some changes. In the end a memorandum of agreement was signed between the county and union officials. But union members are also objecting to that agreement and say they were left out of the process.
That letter of agreement was executed on November 29, 2011. But the union members’ attorney claims that the terms had never been approved nor voted on by the union membership.
“Specifically, paragraph 3 of the Agreement which sets forth the ‘County’s options’ was never agreed to, reviewed with, nor voted on by members of the bargaining unit,” states the letter.
The letter states that if no steps are taken to remedy the situation, legal action will be taken, including the filing of an unfair labor practice complaint with the Montana Board of Personnel Appeals, as well as a complaint for damages in district court.
Dale claims that when the union representatives met with Commissioner Iman and signed the memo agreeing to the county’s changes, the meeting was scheduled early in the afternoon and no union members were in attendance and the issue was not voted on by the membership.
When former Road Supervisor David Ohnstad was fired, the Board of Commissioners decided to place a commissioner in an oversight position for the department during the transition. Commissioner Stoltz was considered for the role, but under protest from road department workers then Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher was given the position.
Following Kanenwisher’s resignation, the county did hire a new Operations Manager for the department, but he quit within a month. So in the meantime, other commissioners, including Stoltz, have been showing up at the Road Department morning and evening “monitoring” affairs at the department.
Union members call it intimidating.
“The Board of Commissioners agreed not to let Stoltz try and run our department,” said Dale. “Now he is there almost every morning and evening. It’s intimidating.” At least nine of her fellow employees are in agreement with that assessment and came to the Bitterroot Star office to air their grievances.
Several of the union members echoed Dale’s feelings and expressed “safety concerns.” They said it was upsetting to have the commissioners watching their every move. They said it created tension and raised frustration levels to the point that it was dangerous to operate the heavy machinery.
“We tried to work things out with the commissioners,” said Dale, “but they won’t listen, so now we believe that the public should be made aware of what is happening before someone gets hurt. We believe if the public really knew what was going on that they would be outraged.”
Union members, obviously upset, spouted a litany of specific incidences which they claim verify their accusations.
Besides the creation of an intimidating atmosphere in the workplace, the union members are also complaining about the county’s hiring practices. They claim that the commissioners have hired unqualified people, the latest machine operator for example, who do not have the skills for the job as it was advertised. This, they claim, is another safety risk. It also requires co-workers to train the individual on the job. They point to a few very experienced individuals that were passed over for the job. They also claim that the new employee knew that she was being hired a month or so before she was actually hired.
Human Resources Director Robert Jenni said that the county is not required to hire people based strictly on their qualifications. He said there were other considerations, such as work ethics. Jenni said that the new operator was qualified for the job. He said that no one in the department could run all the different machinery that is used in road work and snow plowing. He said most employees require some degree of training on some of the equipment after being hired.
Jenni said he believed that some employees were upset because their friends weren’t hired.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that to his knowledge the board had not made any new decision since appointing Kanenwisher to oversee operations. He said the other commissioners are acting on their own when they visit the road department.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows, who was appointed to replace Kanenwisher, said that he has accompanied Stoltz on his visits to the Road Department. He said that initially, following Ohnstad’s termination, Kanenwisher was placed temporarily in the position of having direct oversight and control of the road department as a temporary supervisor who could give direction to the road crews.
“What we are doing now is different,” said Burrows. He said that he has accompanied Stoltz, Foss and Iman on his visits to the road department. He said the aim was simply to observe activities at the department in order to see if complaints being received are valid or not. He said there is no interaction with the workers. He said they simply watch.
“We don’t give anyone any directions. We don’t even make suggestions,” said Burrows.
Commissioner Stoltz said the commissioners are just trying to do their job. He said that according to the Montana Association of Counties, the commissioners can go visit any department whenever they want.
“We can give direction,” said Stoltz. “We could even take over the department if we wanted.”
Stotlz corroborated Burrows’ account of their visits, saying that they do not give directions or speak to any employees. He said they simply observe and take any suggestions or directions to the department head. In this case that is Administrator Eric Anderson, since there is no Operations Manager.
Stoltz said that a lot of people are upset about the operations at the road department and he and other commissioners were going out almost daily in recent weeks to observe operations and make recommendations for change.
“I was picked to head this up because I have the most experience,” said Stoltz. He said he did road work for 13 years.
“We are just trying to do our job,” said Stoltz. “We are the boss. We get accused of not knowing what’s going on, then when we do show up to find out what’s going on, it is taken as intimidating.”
Stoltz said that he could not talk about specifics due to privacy concerns about employees..
Currently Jenni and Stoltz are negotiating a new contract with the union. Two applicants for the job of Operations Manager were being interviewed by the commissioners on Monday.