Business

This company says not to believe union charges of intimidation at its potato plant

Lamb Weston’s potato plant in Twin Falls.
Lamb Weston’s potato plant in Twin Falls. Times-News

A union says Eagle-based Lamb Weston has brought in a “union-busting firm” to illegally intimidate and coerce workers at its Twin Falls potato-processing plant.

Most of the plant’s 600 employees will vote next month on whether to be represented by Teamsters Local Union 483, a Boise-based union affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Some employees say a firm has been harassing them — particularly immigrant workers — while they are on duty, and has put out anti-union fliers.

Lamb Weston says the company respects its employees’ right to vote and hired a firm to educate them about the company’s stance.

That’s not the story told by employees such as Conley Dyer, a forklift operator who was pulled off the floor last week and questioned about his support of the union.

“They tried to intimidate me,” he said. “... I think they’re trying to instill fear.”

A co-worker from Iran had been told the plant would close if the union vote passes, Dyer said.

Lamb Weston denied these and similar allegations.

“We do not think union representation would be advantageous to our employees, and have communicated this to them,” spokeswoman Shelby Stoolman said in an email. “The legal regulations established by the Labor Relations Board allow us to communicate with employees about our stance on the petition within specific guidelines, which we closely follow. We do not threaten or intimidate our employees in any way.”

Lamb Weston makes french fries and other frozen potato products. It was part of ConAgra, one of the nation’s biggest food manufacturers, until it was spun off last year. The company made its Eagle office its international headquarters.

“We’ve hired the consulting firm to assist our management team in answering questions for our employees so they can make a fully informed decision on election day,” Stoolman said.

Stoolman declined to identify the firm and said the terms of Lamb Weston’s agreement with it are confidential. She acknowledged that Lamb Weston in the past has engaged Craft Barresi Consultants, a Troy, Mich., human-resources and labor-relations practice. Workers believe that’s the firm Lamb Weston is using now.

This is not the first attempt Lamb Weston employees have made to unionize, said Teamsters Local Union 483 Director of Representation Darel Hardenbrook. An attempt several years ago never came to an employee vote.

Since Idaho adopted a right-to-work law in the 1980s, union membership in the state has declined. The law prohibits union membership as a condition of employment.

Teamsters Local Union 483 has expanded its membership by 40 percent over the past 18 months, Hardenbrook said. It represents workers in Idaho’s Treasure, Magic and Wood River valleys.

The union has received a stipulated election agreement for representation, and employees at Lamb Weston will vote July 13 and July 15. The union needs 50 percent plus one to win.

Dyer said Lamb Weston has gone beyond informing employees of the company’s stance. “It’s gotten to where it’s more personal,” he said.

Jason Samargis, an employee of 18 years, said several of his co-workers have been approached at work and were reportedly told they could lose their health care benefits or future raises if the vote passes.

The conflict has been going on for months. Employees Drew Jones and Shawn Gifford said in written statements that in early February, they were pulled into supervisor Xavier Bell’s office and interviewed about their stance on unionization.

“They’re approaching you all over the place,” Samargis said. “They’re separating and conquering. I think it’s at the level of intimidating and harassing.”

Teamsters Local Union 483 Organizer Dale Varney said this violates Idaho law and the National Labor Relations Act.

Stoolman said Lamb Weston follows state and federal labor-law guidelines, and no complaints have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

“Our average tenure at the facility is more than 12 years with the company, and we have employees with nearly 50 years of service or more,” she said. “We offer competitive wages and benefits, including pension, 401(k), 10 paid holidays, paid vacation and paternal leave.”

Statesman Business Editor David Staats contributed. Read the Times-News’ original story here.

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