A lawsuit against Heartland Industrial Partners, its Collins & Aikman Corp. subsidiary and the United Steelworkers of America alleging their neutrality agreement violates federal law is ready to move to the discovery stage.
U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr. in Akron ruled Jan. 13 that the parties involved in the suit could begin a discovery period, to be completed by July 30.
Dowd cleared the way for the case when he denied a motion for dismissal filed Sept. 29 by the company and union defendants.
However, the judge granted motions to dismiss individuals named in the suit - including David A. Stockman, Heartland senior managing director and Collins & Aikman CEO; USWA President Leo W. Gerard; and George Becker, who was USWA president at the time of the agreement.
Six workers at C&A's automotive mat plant in Holmesville, Ohio, filed the suit, which seeks injunctive relief, in July. The plaintiffs claim the ``sweetheart'' agreement between Heartland and the USWA in 2000 would require any companies acquired by Heartland to help the union organize their employees and force workers to pay union dues.
The USWA began an organizing campaign at Holmesville in May, according to the lawsuit, despite the employees' having ``on numerous occasions resisted and rejected union representation,'' including that of the USWA.
The suit claims the pact between Heartland and the USWA - outlined in a collective bargaining framework document and a side letter to Becker from Stockman - violates federal law because the union is receiving something of value from the company via the agreement.
The framework and side-letter documents outline items provided by the firm that the plaintiffs view as ``things of value,'' including:
* A commitment from the company not to oppose or resist organizing drives.
* A duty to enter into communications with employees upon the USWA's request to help an organization effort.
* Updated lists of names, addresses, job titles and work locations of employees for the organization process.
* Inclusion in the first collective bargaining agreement of a ``union security'' clause compelling all employees to join the union and pay dues as a condition of employment.
The defendants sought dismissal of the case based on their contention the USWA is not providing an illegal ``thing of value,'' the plaintiffs had not suffered an injury from the agreement and they did not have a private right of action to seek injunctive relief.
Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an organization providing free legal assistance to C&A employees, said he believes Dowd's order recognizes the central part of the plaintiffs' argument.
The judge wrote, ``Heartland ... by agreeing to control its subsidiary companies, the actual employer, has apparently selected and contracted with a union of Heartland's choice.'' Gleason said that action indicates an arrangement not involving the employees, who should choose their own representation.
``This suggests a potential violation of the law,'' he said. ``If the court continues with that reasoning, we believe it will agree with us. It is encouraging.''
A USWA spokesman, however, said the union believes the suit is ``meritless'' and pointed out that the motions to dismiss can be renewed because they were denied without prejudice.
Heartland and C&A officials did not comment on the case.