Before their eight-day strike against 10 employers at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach late last month, union members filed federal labor charges accusing the largest terminal operator at the Port of Los Angeles of spying on its employees.
In a charge filed Nov. 14 with the National Labor Relations Board office in downtown Los Angeles, the International Longshore Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit alleged that APM Terminals Pacific Ltd. listened in on confidential union communications. The union claims management spied on its members for at least a six-month period prior to the strike.
According to the charge, officials with APM "conducted secret surveillance, eavesdropping and snooping and listening in on confidential communications between and among union representatives ... concerning ongoing contracting negotiations, bargaining strategies and labor-management issues."
Under federal law, any union or union member may file charges with the NLRB alleging violations of the 1935 Labor Relations Act. But only government officials may decide whether a charge has merit. If the NLRB decides the surveillance charges have merit - a process that has not been completed yet - it will build a case against APM Terminals, NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland said. A case likely would involve a trial before an administrative law judge in Los Angeles.
John Crowley, senior vice president for law and regulatory affairs for APM Terminals
"Surveillance is against our policy," Crowley said. "It is, of course, under investigation. The employee at the center of the controversy is on administrative leave. That's all we are saying at this point."
APM Terminals was the first employer struck by the Office Clerical Unit, whose members walked off the job on Nov. 27. The next day, the unit spread its strike to nine more terminals - six more in Los Angeles and three in Long Beach. Since other longshore bargaining units refused to cross picket lines, the strike crippled most operators at the nation's largest port complex for more than week.
Despite the serious nature of the allegations, the NLRB's remedies are limited, even if officials decide to move forward with the case. In one of the most common remedies, employers found guilty of violating federal labor law must post a notice informing employers how they have broken the law.
And whatever happens, the system often moves slowly. In June, Warehouse Workers United - a union-funded group seeking to improve working conditions for warehouse workers in California's Inland Empire - filed surveillance charges in connection with an anti-Wal-Mart press conference held in downtown Los Angeles.
Warehouse Workers United charged that an employee of Mercury Public Affairs, which was then under contract to Wal-Mart, illegally monitored an interview given by an active member of the pro-worker group.
Cleeland said the NLRB's Division of Advice is still looking into the merits of those charges, which were filed against both Mercury Public Affairs and Wal-Mart.
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