Worker says UAW harassed him over right-to-work beliefs

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

A worker at Ford Motor Co.’s Sterling Axle Plant has filed a complaint against the United Auto Workers Local 228, alleging the local leadership has repeatedly harassed and singled him out over his political beliefs.

Brian Pannebecker, a 56-year-old hi-lo driver who has been an outspoken proponent of Michigan’s right-to-work law, alleges union leaders at Local 228 have targeted him by “incessantly monitoring, following behind and hounding (him); and by writing him up for multiple minor safety violations,” according to a complaint filed recently with the National Labor Relations Board.

Pannebecker, a spokesman for Michigan Freedom to Work, has written op-eds in local publications and has hosted informational meetings to teach other autoworkers how to opt out of the union if they wish.

“When I speak out publicly, they’ve tried everything they can to silence me,” he said. “I’m not the kind of person that will keep my mouth shut if I feel I’m being treated unfairly.”

The NLRB received his complaint earlier this week and will now gather evidence in the case in the coming weeks. If regional director Terry Morgan finds the case has merit, it will go before a judge. It could be among the first cases involving harassment over right-to-work since Michigan passed the law in 2012.

Pannebecker says the harassment started about a year ago when Local 228 appointed a new safety rep. He claims the rep constantly shadows him at the plant and writes him up for minor safety violations, like not wearing his ear plugs or not coming to a complete stop while driving his hi-lo.

He also claims someone at the plant has posted fliers calling him “a****** of the month” for not paying union dues.

“These are the kinds of harassing tactics the union is supposed to protect workers from,” he said. “Local 228 is doing the exact same thing we elected them to keep management from doing to us.”

Paul Torrente, president of Local 228, did not return requests for comment. The international UAW typically leaves comment on these matters to the locals.

Other local union halls have singled out members who have left via their state’s right-to-work law.

UAW Local 412 in Warren prints in a newsletter the names of about 43 members “who choose not to pay their fair share.”

Last year, UAW Local 1853 in Tennessee reportedly published a “Scab Report,” listing the names and work stations of more than 40 workers at GM’s Spring Hill Assembly Plant who were non dues-paying workers.

“Any membership organization has a right to post a list of their members or non-members and to appeal to people to maintain or join up,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the industry and labor group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

The law allows union members to opt out of belonging to the union and paying dues, but still allows them the same benefits as union members. They are prohibited from doing certain things like voting in union elections or attending certain meetings.

Dziczek said in other right-to-work states, the impact on union membership has been minimal, but that “it does put some pressure on the union to show value in membership.”

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