Novelis Inc. is in federal court in Syracuse to defend itself against charges by the National Labor Relations Board. The case stems from allegations by the United Steelworkers Union that the Oswego aluminum manufacturer interfered with a vote by its workers to unionize.
In February, nearly 600 Novelis employees cast votes to decide if they should become part of the United Steelworkers Union. The vote narrowly failed, but Jim Ridgeway, a representative for the U.S.W., alleges that employees were harassed and intimidated by Novelis' supervisors. He also charges that the company interrogated some workers about their pro-union involvement, and threatened employees with reducing wages and imposing mandatory overtime hours.
"We've lost votes many times and walked away because it was the will of the people," Ridgeway said. "Literally hundreds of supporters came to us afterwards and said look, they made this threat. They threatened our work schedule, they threatened that work could go elsewhere. They threatened possibly the elimination of jobs."
Ridgeway says the union should be allowed in to the company as a bargaining agent.
"The government looked at it and said this goes way past a traditional campaign where a company sometimes will attempt to diffuse an organizing campaign, but most of them stay within the realm of what's legal," Ridgeway said. "This company went way, way beyond anything that's legal under the National Labor Relations Act that governs conduct of both sides."
But Novelis Plant Manager Chris Smith says the company did nothing wrong and that it will fight to clear its name in court.
"The workforce has voted that they want to maintain self-representation, and it's our responsibly to support them all the way and we will continue to do that," Smith said. "We just gotta make sure we get rid of all the distractions and concentrate on the things that we know we need to do and need to do well."
Smith also says the current vote should stand.
"That, above all, is the primary concern here," Smith explained. "And that's why Novelis as a company has chosen to defend the charges that have been put against us, and make sure that it's clearly understood that we are very confident that we ran a very legal and clean campaign. And this is our opportunity to set the record straight, so to speak."
The hearing is scheduled to go at least through Wednesday, but both sides say they expect a final outcome to take months to decide.