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Lamb Weston

ConAgra Food’s Lamb Weston potato-processing plant is seen on Feb. 11, 2015, in Twin Falls.

TWIN FALLS — An Idaho union and Lamb Weston may go before a judge next month to determine whether the company interfered with its employees’ rights.

In July, employees voted against unionizing the Twin Falls plant. But Teamsters Local 483, the Boise-based union seeking to represent the employees, filed charges against Lamb Weston with the National Labor Relations Board this summer.

Unless a settlement is reached soon, an administrative law judge of the NLRB will consider testimony Jan. 31 at a hearing in Twin Falls.

The union says supervisors at the company interrogated or coerced employees before the vote. Lamb Weston says its employees have done nothing wrong before, during or since the union election.

“Throughout the campaign and before it, our management team operated with integrity and within the regulations outlined by the NLRB,” the company said in a statement to the Times-News. “The allegations are without merit. We believe our employees voiced their confidence in our management team when they voted overwhelmingly to not be represented by the union. We are cooperating fully with the NLRB on the hearing process.”

In its charges, the union named five individuals in supervisory positions at Lamb Weston. It claims that between February and July, these supervisors interrogated employees about their support for the union. The Teamsters says this violated the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits employers from interfering with, restraining or coercing employees exercising their rights to organize.

Darel Hardenbrook, director of representation for Teamsters Local 483, said the Lamb Weston supervisors were being advised by outside consultants.

“What we want more than anything is a level playing field,” he said.

The vote to unionize failed with 80 percent of eligible employees voting “no.” Prior to the vote, Lamb Weston had hired a firm it said would educate employees about the company’s stance. But union supporters said the firm and the supervisors were also using intimidation tactics.

Employees who opposed the union have also accused the supporters of harassing them at work and on social media.

The hearing takes place at 10 a.m. Jan. 31 in the Parks and Recreation Department conference room at 136 Maxwell Ave. National Labor Relations Board hearings are normally open to the public, but it will be up to the judge’s discretion.

Less than half of cases with the board make it to the hearing stage, as most charges are summarily discharged or withdrawn. The hearing is one of the last steps in the process after a regional director has submitted a complaint.

At the hearing, both sides will submit their testimony to the judge, who will apply the rule of law and issue a decision. Lamb Weston or the union will still have opportunities to appeal that decision to the NLRB as well as a court of appeals.

Hardenbrook compared the hearing to a court trial, and said Lamb Weston has until Wednesday to come up with a settlement, or else the case will proceed to the hearing.

The Teamsters Local 483 plans to pursue criminal charges as well, he said.

“We are just getting started on this one,” Hardenbrook said.

The union has approached the county prosecuting attorney, Grant Loebs, and the state’s deputy attorney general, he said. He said Loebs’ office was ill-prepared to investigate these charges, and the attorney general’s office gave them the cold shoulder.

“They have shooed their constituents out of their office, and we won’t forget it,” Hardenbrook said.

Loebs told the Times-News that there are higher standards for something to rise to the criminal level, and he didn’t believe the union had sufficient evidence to sustain a criminal charge in Idaho.

When a judge finds that a company violated the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRB commonly issues a cease and desist order that requires the company to stop the violations and post a notice for employees. Any unlawfully discharged employees, if applicable, would receive backpay. The company would not be fined.

Hardenbrook said the NLRB could decide to set aside the election and force Lamb Weston to come to the bargaining table. However, it appears that the union would have to prove that the unfair labor practices affected the results of the election.

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