Members of the Service Employees International Union Local 721 Thursday were applauding a federal judge for tentatively agreeing to an injunction barring Riverside County officials from taking further actions that prevent a union negotiator from carrying out her duties.
The local sued the county in December, seeking an immediate order to stop high-ranking sheriff’s personnel from engaging in what its attorneys alleged were intimidation tactics designed to stymie employees from promoting union interests.
According to the county, there was never any evidence to support the allegations, but U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips on Wednesday ruled that a preliminary injunction was warranted. The wording of the order has not been ironed out.
“This is a win for all workers to have a voice in the workplace, free of harassment and intimidation,” said SEIU attorney Alan Crowley. “This is a victory for the union and a victory for society to stand up against these unjust attacks on workers for union activities, which are constitutional rights.”
Despite finding merit in an injunction, Phillips also observed that many of the union’s claims were unfounded.
“The county has argued all along that the allegations are baseless, and the ruling supports that argument,” said attorney Ed Zappia, who was retained by the county to litigate the matter.
A trial on the merits of the SEIU lawsuit is pending.
According to the suit, union members’ First Amendment rights to freely speak and assemble were infringed by the Sheriff’s Department.
The suit is centered on the experiences of a union negotiator and 15-year sheriff’s employee, Wendy Thomas.
According to an SEIU legal brief, Thomas, a communications supervisor, became the target of repeated harassment after she was selected as a lead negotiator for the collective bargaining unit in 2009.
Union attorneys described instances in which Thomas was taken aside by superiors and rebuked for posting union-related notices and conferring with colleagues about upcoming SEIU events.
The lawsuit named sheriff’s Capt. Larry Grotefend, Undersheriff Colleen Walker and Assistant Sheriff Rick Hall as defendants.
According to the union, Thomas was stripped of her supervisory position and involuntarily transferred on three occasions in an alleged attempt to disrupt her union duties.
The SEIU alleges that investigations were initiated to determine whether the woman was conducting union business during work hours.
In January 2010, county Supervisor John Benoit sought a meeting with Thomas, evidently to get her take on the union’s expectations in upcoming negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, according to the union. When Thomas told her supervisor, Dennis Scheertell, about Benoit’s request, he allegedly reprimanded her for “interacting with an elected official, even though Benoit had requested to speak with her,” the brief states.
Thomas alleged that her reserved parking space and office were taken away from her during the turmoil.
Phillips’ tentative injunction, expected to be finalized next week, specifies that the county cannot impede Thomas in her official role as a union negotiator.