Association for Union Democracy

IBEWer’s federal suit attacks “Right-to-Reject”

By Herman Benson

There was plenty of work in South Carolina, and so union electrician Edward Angelo Bonaldi travelled from Dallas to register at the hall of IBEW Local 776 and was promptly hired on January 11, 2014 at a project run by the Allison Smith company. He’s a skilled worker, and diligent. After a few days, he noticed what he felt were unsanitary and unsafe practices on the job, conditions in violation of stated company rules; and so he reported it. What he didn’t know, or expect, was that the company’s project manager and union representatives seemed irritated by his concerns.

Soon after, on January 24, the union steward told him that the project was slowing down, and he was being laid off for lack of work. But to him, everyone still seemed hard at work, and back at the union hiring hall, he noticed that the company was still looking for more electricians at the same project. Meanwhile, he also saw that the same company, Allison Smith, was recruiting electricians for another project in South Carolina. And so, dispatched from the union hall, he schlepped down to South Carolina. When he applied, his application for work was rejected. The company noted simply that the union contract clearly and explicitly gave it the unilateral, unqualified right to reject any applicant for work; it was not required to explain or cite a reason for it denial. (To make the story short and simple, for the sordid details, see the back page of this issue):

His federal suit against the local and the company charges that the union failed to process his grievance against the company. It does not challenge the basic validity of the “right to reject” but it does, in effect, challenge its application in this case.

The right-to-reject clause is widespread in construction, not only in the IBEW but in all the building trades. Employers — of course! — love it. International union officials are comfortable with it because it helps them get along amicably with union employers. The IBEW differs from all the other construction unions at least in this: the reject clause has come under massive attack by active local union leadership, including business agents.

For employers, the unrestricted right to reject any job applicants, even those properly referred by a union hiring hall, allows them to weed out good union loyalists who police enforcement of the union contract, especially provisions on safety. Over the years, AUD has been provided with copies of blacklists maintained and exchanged by electrical contractors, recording the names of workers who are never to be hired.

For unscrupulous power-ridden union officials, the employer’s right to reject gives those officials an easy, legal-appearing means of starving out critics in the local who question their authority. The victimized critics are dispatched to a job, apparently in proper order; but the employer, warned against “trouble makers,” turns them away. The union washes its hands; the employer stands on its unqualified right to reject.

But good local union activists — stewards, executive board members, business agents, convention delegates — want to abolish the employers right to reject because they want to protect outspoken unionists on the job and strengthen the union. At the 2001 international IBEW convention, the delegates overrode the strong opposition of their international officers directed them to take steps to end the employers arbitrary authority by making the right to reject subject to good cause. Five years pass; the international ignores the convention decision. At the next convention, in 2006 the delegates, again in defiance, repeat their decision. Now ten years later, the decision of two IBEW conventions remains a dead letter, ignored and unenforced by the international officers.

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