Ryan Kastens was, prior to January 2014, a sheet metal mechanic with Spirit Aerosystems in his home state of Kansas. He was involved in his union, IAM District 70, Local Lodge 839, having previously served as a steward and co-chairing several committees. He was also the shop safety advocate, appointed by his direct supervisor. This position entailed “keeping the facility safe and finding things like loose wires or dirty floors that could be a safety hazard.”
In January of 2014, just days away from a scheduled promotion (and working temporarily as a conductor sentinel), Kastens was escorted off the premises of his work site by security with no paperwork or explanation. He immediately tried to contact Frank Molina, the district’s Directing (head) Business Representative (DBR), and Becky Ledbetter, the Assistant DBR. Molina looked into the incident and reported back a week later that he told Kastens that he did not have any significant information about what had happened.
A week after he was walked off the job site, Kastens was called in for a meeting with security. In the presence of a union steward, present at Kastens’ invitation, he discovered that the underlying incident was apparently an email sent out to over 50 people containing a video of potential unsafe conditions on the job site. The video had originally been sent to Kastens by the former Local Lodge President Jarrod Lehman. Kastens felt that the video raised a legitimate safety issue.
In March of 2014, allegedly having still never received any paperwork explaining the exact nature of his violation, an HR representative told Kastens that the investigation was over and he was to be terminated. He immediately filed a grievance with IAM.
Kastens heard nothing for two months regarding any meetings or arbitration for his grievance. In late May, he received a letter from the union, stating that the grievance had been settled for back pay, which was enclosed, to cover a period in late 2013 during which he was suspended for reasons unrelated to the termination. According to the DBR, the employer had a letter from early January, signed by Kastens, stating that any further disciplinary action would result in termination. Kastens stated that he had never agreed to the terms of the letter. The only other person who appears to have been disciplined and terminated in the same way is Lehman, who sent Kastens the video originally.
Kastens and Lehman, unsatisfied with the outcome of the grievance, filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging multiple violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), including threats directed at Kastens, unfair termination in the case of both Kastens and Lehman, and discriminatory processing of Kastens’ termination grievance.
The charges acknowledge that both men potentially violated the company’s “Acceptable Use Policy,” which prohibits the dissemination of “Spirit information to parties outside Spirit, unless authorized by” the appropriate company director or representative. Another policy restricts the sending of any information, including “audio or video recordings and transmissions,” to any person outside the company, except information that has been exempted after a review by appropriate company personnel. Exempted material must be determined “not to have a risk of adversely affecting any of the company’s interests.” Employees in violation of any of these policies are subject to the company’s progressive disciplinary policy, which consists of verbal counseling (with written documentation), a written warning, suspension without pay, and then termination. There is, however, an exemption that allows for termination upon first offense of the offense is “unauthorized disclosure of company trade secrets and private or confidential information to employees, customers, friends, relatives, general public, or new media or making unauthorized representations by speaking on behalf of the company.”
The video in question was taken in late December of 2013 and was sent to Lehman on January 27, 2014. It shows a collision between a truck and a company scooter that took place on the street directly adjacent to the company’s entrance and parking lot. The name of the person who released the video, which was apparently taken by company security cameras, was never revealed. It is also unclear if the street is actually on company property.
What is not in dispute is that Kastens and Lehman forwarded a video that potentially violated company policy. However, the union’s handling of past grievances and the terminations of both men are of concern. According to the NLRB decision, issued in late April 2015, unbeknownst to Kastens, his computer usage was already under investigation at the urging of Becky Ledbetter, the Assistant DBR. Ledbetter denied that she had anything to do with the investigation until a January 13, 2014 email surfaced in which she specifically made such a request to the company’s labor relations manager. Furthermore, once the termination grievances were in process, DBR Molina “sought to keep Kastens out of the loop” regarding the progress of his termination grievance.
One striking example is a March 8th email in which Molina “directed the Union’s district office staff not to release any paperwork from [Kastens’] file without Molina’s approval.” Molina also never met with Kastens in person to discuss the progress or handling of the grievance, leading to the previously mentioned settlement in which Molina accepted back pay on behalf of Kastens or Lehman. At the request of the union, Spirit Aerosystems agreed to modify the agreements, allowing Molina to sign the settlements and releases in place of Kastens and Lehman. While Molina did contact Lehman prior to agreeing to the settlement, he did not do the same with Kastens, who only found out about the settlement when he received a letter and check in the mail.
At the root of the mishandling of the grievances is allegedly Kastens’ involvement in an opposition slate. According to the NLRB decision, Kastens’ relationship with the local deteriorated in November 2013, when Karen Asuncion, a reform candidate for International Vice President, came to speak at a union meeting. Asuncion was running on a slate with Jay Cronk against incumbent Thomas Buffenbarger. During the meeting, Howard Johnson, one of two in-plant representatives, harassed Asuncion in an effort to shorten her presentation. Kastens stood up for Asuncion and unsuccessfully tried to have Johnson removed from the meeting. In the aftermath, Kastens complained to Molina about Johnson’s behavior and was pressured to acknowledge that he supported the reform candidates, which he eventually did.
It appears that Johnson held a grudge from the November 2013 meeting; as it turns out, he was the one who forwarded the email to company management, alerting them that Kastens and Lehman had violated company policy. Further, during the time Kastens’ grievance was being processed, Johnson confronted Jay Cronk, candidate for IAM General President, while he and Kastens were handing out campaign materials outside the main entrance to the company. When Kastens tried to intervene, Johnson threatened him, telling him to “shut up before I beat your ass” and then stating that he would make sure the company did not reinstate Kastens.
Because of the behavior demonstrated by both Frank Molina and Howard Johnson, NLRB General Counsel alleges, on behalf of Kastens, that the union violated its duty of fair representation by processing the termination grievance in bad faith. In fact, Molina’s insistence that the company refused to budge on Kastens’ termination is undermined by testimony from the company’s top labor official. The official stated that he had little knowledge of Kastens’ discipline.
NLRB Administrative Law Judge Michael A. Rosas concluded that the original terminations of both Ryan Kastens and Jarrod Lehmen violated sections 8(b)(1)(A) and (2) of the NLRA, which prohibit employers and unions from behaving in a manner that is coercive to union members. This prohibits threats of violence, unfair discipline for filing a grievance, and causing an employer to terminate an employee without due process.
Per the Order within Judge Rosas’ decision, the union is ordered to cease and desist from any action or behavior that would cause the employer to terminate “employee-members because of their dissident union activity[;] threatening employee members with bodily harm or impeding their grievances because of their protected concerted activities[; or] discriminatorily […] processing employee-members’ grievances because of their protected concerted activities.” The judge further ordered that Kastens and Lehman be made whole for “any loss of earnings and other benefits suffered as a result of the discrimination against them.” To this end, Kastens will be reinstated in his former job or one of the same status, with the same seniority and other privileges he had previous to his termination. (Lehman had, by the time the case was heard, accepted another job.) The termination itself will be removed from all company files, to be followed up with written confirmation.
The union was ordered to post a notice to members affirming their rights within the union and affirming that the union will not threaten or discriminate against any member engaging in concerted protected activity.
Kastens is pleased with the outcome. The union, however, has already filed an appeal; Kastens states that the District President and the union’s lawyer have claimed that the decision was biased and not made based on the law. The union seems confident that the decision will be overruled; however history tells us that it is very unusual for NLRB rulings to dismissed. Stay tuned for updates.