Ex-employee charges CDS
Former campus dining service employee Ed Beard has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board against Bon Appetit for months of harassment preceding his Oct. 31 termination. He claims that the termination was a “set-up” by Oberlin’s food provider in retaliation for his budding activism within the United Auto Workers, the union of food service workers at Oberlin.
Beard was a food service maintenance worker for six years before his dismissal. Beard said he had a good work record under the previous food service company, Sodexho-Marriott, citing only two recorded disciplinary actions in four years beginning in 1997.
Since 2001, however, Beard claims he has faced harassment and a string of strategic disciplinary actions from management on account of his strong union stances. Many charges were thrown out due to lack of proof, according to Beard.
Beard was accused of sabotaging a truck by breaking the key off in the ignition, but he said no, evidence could be produced. The charge was dropped. In another instance, Beard was charged with “yelling, cussing, and throwing coffee cups” in the dish-room.
During the disciplinary review, the charge was changed to “unprofessional behavior,” and no evidence of any broken cups was offered. Beard was also charged with “punching a wall and leaving a dent,” but no dents could be found.
According to Director of Human Resources Ruth Spencer, Beard was dismissed for insubordination. Spencer was unable to comment specifically about the instances of insubordination other than to say that Beard failed to follow a directive, an on-the-job order that, if refused, can be grounds for immediate dismissal. In follow-up investigation, Ruth maintained that the proper grievance process for appealing a dismissal had been followed.
“Every case is different,” Spencer said. “We review every case to determine the appropriate disciplinary action. In Beard’s case, insubordination had been an issue before.”
Disciplinary actions in dining services follow a general labor contract principle called “progressive discipline,” according to Spencer. By this principle, employees are given an initial warning about a problem and given a chance to make changes before disciplinary actions are escalated.
Beard asserts that he was simply standing up for union rights. “I’m not an angel, but I’ll do anything to stand up for my union brothers and sisters,” he said.
“Bon Appetit has got the union backed into a corner. Someone has to speak up, so I do.”
Insubordination or set-up?
“The other maintenance person had called off that day, so I was doing the work of two people,” he said. “By the time a replacement showed up, I had finished the beverage machines and was working on the salad bar. Theresa, a new manager at Stevenson, came up to me and asked me to prepare the iced tea machines. I said I’d do them later because I was busy. I was filling up ice buckets when she came back and gave me a direct order to go do the ice tea machines. I told her to let someone else do them because I was still busy.”
“I don’t need to be followed around and badgered all day,” Beard added.
Beard said he thought the matter was worked out that day in a meeting between himself and managers, and was surprised to find out that management intended to use it against him again.
Several employees, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with Beard that management occasionally issued directives impossible to fulfill.
“They want you to know who’s boss,” one employee said. “Step out of line and they’ll make life hard for you.”
“I just do my work and keep my head down,” another employee added.
“Directives are a common part of union contracts,” Spencer responded. “They clearly communicate a task to a person.” Spencer likened directives to paper assignments on a syllabus.
Though it was the ice-tea incident that prompted the disciplinary investigation, Beard’s entire record was considered in the decision of his dismissal. One incident that influenced the decision to dismiss and bar Beard from campus was a report that Beard announced he was going to bring a bow and arrow to work.
“Two co-workers and I were looking at a sporting goods catalog. One of them said he liked a certain gun, and I said a liked a crossbow. Somehow this got twisted around and told to management,” Beard explained.
Spencer said that such reports are always investigated very seriously. But while she would not elaborate on the investigation process, she could not say that the two co-workers Beard was with were ever even spoken to.
“Some people like Ed, and some people don’t,” Spencer said. “These people were his friends, and he told us what they’d say. We’re not disputing what he’s saying about those two people, but they aren’t the only ones involved in this issue, and our investigation covered a broad number of people.”
About thirty co-workers signed a petition circulated by a friend of Beard’s, stating that they did not feel threatened by him and that he should not be fired. Nevertheless, the petition was never submitted to Spencer.
“It wouldn’t mean a lot anyway,” Spencer stated. “This isn’t a popularity contest.”
Beard’s integrity in question
“Ed complained about having to do more work, but we’ve all got to do more work,” one employee said.
“He had to be told to do certain things, where someone else would have just done them,” another worker said.
Several employees said that they had seen or experienced managerial harassment, though one person said that no such thing existed.
In one instance, Beard said he was approached aggressively on both sides by two supervisors, who called him names and stuck their fingers in his face. Beard filed a security report about the incident.
“An investigation found that he was truthful in that fact that two supervisors approached him and that there was a verbal exchange,” Spencer confirmed. “The matter was addressed to management, and it won’t happen again.”
Rance Turpin, one of Beard’s friends and co-workers, said that Beard was a good worker who stood up for himself.
“Ed could do the work of three people, and he did the work of one and a half most of the time. But constant harassment will give you a sour disposition. You lose respect for your job when you get disrespected at it,” Turpin said.
Turpin claimed he had had similarly confrontational experiences with management.
“A supervisor tried to send me home for not aligning all the milk cartons right,” Turpin said. Turpin demanded to speak with a union steward after the supervisor put her finger in his face and called him a “dumb-ass.” Turpin said he escaped being sent home that day because six students witnessed the event and spoke to the steward on his behalf.
Bon Appetit: union buster?
Bon Appetit has had brush-ins with the NLRB, the government’s labor oversight board, in the past.
In St. Louis, Missouri in 2001, the NLRB charged Bon Appetit management with interrogation and harassment of employees in interference with a vote on whether to join a union.
“We don’t have any of those staff,” Spencer rebutted. “You can’t attribute what happened in St. Louis to here. For the most part, management’s relationship with the union is positive.”
Spencer dismissed Beard’s claim that Bon Appetit was trying to break up the union in food service.
“Bon Appetit can’t get rid of the union,” Spencer said.
The Oberlin UAW representative refused to comment on any issue. Beard, who has sought independent counsel, has not filed a grievance against the UAW for lack of representation.
Because the NLRB investigation could take a year, Beard has been actively campaigning for reinstatement, circulating petitions among students and co-workers. Beard is requesting the College form a panel of students to review his case.