Union not responsible for harassment

Sept. 1, 2004
Local Union 5724 of the United Steelworkers of America represents the production and maintenance employees of Ormet Primary Aluminum Corp., an aluminum smelter in Monroe

Local Union 5724 of the United Steelworkers of America represents the production and maintenance employees of Ormet Primary Aluminum Corp., an aluminum smelter in Monroe

County, Ohio. In May 1999, the company and the union began having problems related to the collectivebargaining agreement, which had expired. In an attempt to get their contract terms, union members began chanting while entering and leaving the building, placed signs at the entrance to the plant, and wrote graffiti on the property.

Some of the chants, signs, and graffiti referred directly to Jeff Woodell, a nonunion pot-line supervisor who was required to work closely with union employees. Some union members disagreed with Woodell's discipline of employees and wanted him fired from his supervisory position. Union employees chanted "Woodell must go" and "one day Woodell will pay." Among the graffiti on the plant were some that stated "the only good Woodell is a dead Woodell" and "match in the gas tank, boom, boom Woodell." Other graffiti consisted of obscene remarks about Woodell's wife.

Woodell also had confrontations with chanting union members who approached him. In one case, a union member drove closely behind Woodell with a hot-metal truck. Woodell began to miss work due to the stress the labor dispute was having on him. On May 5, 2000, Woodell took a leave of absence from his job and was diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress disorder. The labor dispute was resolved at the end of May 2000, when the company and the union signed a new contract. Ormet ordered Woodell to return to work on July 23, 2001, following an independent medical examination that concluded he was well enough to resume work. Woodell consulted with his doctors who said he was not well enough to return to work at Ormet. Woodell did not return, and Ormet terminated him.

Woodell sued both Ormet and the union. The Ohio trial court granted summary judgment for both defendants, and Woodell appealed to the Ohio Court of Appeals. Ormet filed for bankruptcy after the appeal was filed, and the appellate court ruled that Woodell's appeal of the ruling in favor of the company could not proceed until the bankruptcy dispute was resolved. However, the court allowed Woodell to proceed with his appeal of the ruling for the union. The union argued that the chants, graffiti, and actions Woodell complained of were protected under the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees employees the right to engage in "concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."

The court concluded that some of the chants and graffiti, for instance "Woodell must go," were protected activities because they were directed at employment conditions. However, the court ruled that other chants and graffiti, such as those about killing Woodell and making obscene remarks about his wife, were not related to the terms or conditions of employment and were not protected. Nevertheless, the court upheld the lower-court ruling for the union because Woodell could not prove that the union or any of its officers or members authorized the conduct. The court also held that the incident in which a union member followed Woodell with a hot-metal truck was not protected activity, but Woodell failed to prove that the union condoned this action.

Woodell v. Ormet Primary Aluminum Corp., 808 N.E.2d 402 (Ohio App. 2004), Court of Appeals of Ohio

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