Vulcan vs. the Machinists’ Union: The Turkey Grievance

Although Vulcan’s relationship with the Machinists’ trade union at its Chattanooga facility was generally reasonable as such things go, every now and then conflict would arise outside of the triennial (usually) contract negotiations. Probably the most significant of these conflicts–and certainly the best publicised–was the “Turkey Grievance” in 1981. It’s a good way to illustrate the whole grievance and arbitration process, and in itself is an interesting piece of labour law.

The best place to begin this narrative is with the following notice, which was posted in the shop on 16 November 1981:


Years ago during a financially successful period, the Company, wishing to share such success with employees, decided to give employees a turkey at Thanksgiving and a ham at Christmas. The Company has continued this practice each year since that time.

Unfortunately, this year has not been a particularly successful year. As a consequence, we regret to inform you that this year we will not provide a turkey at Thanksgiving. We will, however, give employees a ham at Christmas.

The usual procedure in the event an employee had a complaint against Management was to hold a meeting consisting of representative of the Union’s shop committee and Management. If the matter could not be satisfactorily resolved there, the Union would file a grievance. (Sometimes the order between meeting an grievance would be reversed.)

In this case the sequence was a little different. The events were outlined by the Company’s labour attorney, Bernard J. Echlin of Vedder, Price, Kaufman and Kammholz, in a letter to Mr. Douglas D. Walldorff, Acting Regional Director of the National Labour Relations Board in Atlanta:

Before making any decision with respect to the Thanksgiving turkeys, the Company on November 16, 1982 called a meeting of the shop committee of the Union. At that meeting the Company discussed with the committee its proposed course of action. While the committee did not agree with the Company on the matter, neither did it disagree. Nor did the Committee propose any alternate course of action. Following the meeting the Company posted a notice for the information of all employees. A copy of the notice is enclosed. This notice was shown to the shop committee before it was posted. The shop committee did not object to its posting or ask that the Company delay the posting of the notice.

A day or two later a member of the shop committee asked a representative of the Company whether the Company would be willing to meet with Union Business Representative Edward Pierce to discuss the Thanksgiving turkey matter. The Company readily agreed to meet with Pierce and did meet with him. In that meeting Pierce objected to the Company’s proposed course of action but did not persuade the Company to provide employees turkeys at Thanksgiving.

The Union filed the formal grievance (shown at right) four days later. It is noteworthy that Edward Pierce, Directing Business Representative for the Success Lodge 56 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, signed the grievance. Generally speaking a grievance would be signed by a member of the Union’s shop committee or the grievant.

The Company formally responded to the grievance on 1 December 1981 as follows:

This is in response to the grievance dated November 20, 1981 in which the Union alleges a violation of Article 1.1 and other provisions of the agreement between the Company and Union because the Company this year has not provided employees a turkey for Thanksgiving.

Section 15.1 provides that the parties’ written agreement “constitutes the entire agreement between the parties.” Thus, if there were a commitment on the part of the Company to provide employees with a turkey every Thanksgiving such commitment would have to be found in the written agreement. Neither Article 1.1 nor any other provisions of the agreement contain such a commitment.

The grievance describes the Company’s action in not providing a turkey as “unilateral action” and as having taken place “without negotiations with the Union.” Under the express provisions of Section 15.1, the Company had no duty to bargain with the Union with respect to the matter. Nonetheless, despite the provisions of Section 15.1 and long before the Thanksgiving holiday, the Company discussed its intentions with the Union Committee. Thereafter, still long before Thanksgiving, the matter was discussed at the Union Committee’s request with Union Business Agent Edward Pierce. Thus, even if there were an obligation to bargain with the Union with respect to the matter, the Company satisfied such obligation.

The grievance is without merit and is hereby denied.

The articles cited by both sides refer to the Union contract in force, the result of collective bargaining in 1980.

The Union responded by filing an unfair labour practice complaint with the National Labour Relations Board’s office in Atlanta. The NRLB responded on 22 March 1982, in part as follows:

In accordance with the National Labour Relations Board’s decision in Collyer Insulated Wire, 192 NLRB 837 (1971), and pursuant to “arbitration deferral policy under Collyer – revised guidelines, publicly issued by the General Counsel on May 10, 1972, I am declining to issue a complaint on the instant Charge based on my determination that further proceedings on the Charge should be administratively deferred for arbitration.

My reasons for deferring the charge are as follows: the issue raised by the instant charge is one that can be considered and resolved under the grievance arbitration provisions in the current labour agreement between the parties, and a grievance has, in fact, been filed. Moreover, the Charged Party has notified this office, that it is now, and for a reasonable period will be, willing to arbitrate the dispute underlying the charge in the above-captioned case, notwithstanding any contractual time limitations on the processing of grievances to arbitration.

The arbitration process was facilitated by the Federal Medication and Conciliation Service in Washington, DC. Here, the FMCS would submit a panel of names of potential arbitrators to both parties. Those submitted had met the Service’s requirements to act as an arbitrator. If one of these was suitable to both parties, the arbitration would proceed. If none of the names submitted were mutually satisfactory, the Service would submit another panel and the process would be repeated.

The FMCS submitted its first panel on 8 December 1981; none of the members of the panel were acceptable to both sides. Since the NRLB had elected to defer the unfair labour practice charge until arbitration was resolved, the Union initiated a request for another panel of arbitrators, which the Company co-signed and sent back to the FMCS (see right.) The FMCS submitted a panel of five to both parties on 6 March 1982. Mr. Ralph Roger Williams of Tuscaloosa, AL, proved acceptable to both parties and was selected to arbitrate this case.

Mr. Williams submitted times that he could be in Chattanooga for the arbitration meeting, and the meeting was set for 1000 8 June 1982.

At the arbitration meeting both sides presented their case, calling witnesses and cross-examining opposing witnesses. After the meeting both sides presented post-hearing briefs on the subject, which could comment on the testimony given (both positive and adversely) and present what each side felt was the applicable law in the case.

The arbitrator issued his ruling in favour of the Company on 30 July 1982. His decision can be read here. The decision came as a shock to the Union (and frankly I was surprised as well.)

Without a favourable decision from the arbitrator, the Union opted to let the unfair labour charge lapse. It lapsed so thoroughly that, on 30 January 1984 (nearly a year and a half after the arbitration ruling) the NRLB contacted Union and Company alike to see how things were moving along. The Company responded by submitting a copy of the arbitration to the NRLB. Although the Board offered the Union the option for appeal, the Union did not opt to do so, and the matter of the Thanksgiving turkeys came to a close.

The case was significant enough that the following notice appeared in the 25 October 1982 edition of U.S. News and World Report:

Turkeys given to union employees are a gratuity that can be withdrawn at any time, holds an arbitrator. Vulcan Iron Works halted its custom of giving turkeys to machinists after a poor financial year. The arbitrator finds against the union after determining that its contract did not mention the gifts and that employees had not considered them income, since they failed to declare them for tax purposes.

Although the Company regarded the matter as a significant victory, its long-term effects were decidedly mixed. With the collapse of the offshore oil industry, Vulcan’s business suffered in the years immediately following the grievance. The Union opted to pass on contract negotiations in 1983 and 1984, making a three-year contract into a five-year one. It also opted to leave the Machinists’ pension plan in 1992 for a 401(k), a significant step since trade union’s traditionally regard participation in the union’s plan as an important way of bonding the members to the union. On the other hand, decertification–even when an important union “right” was not recognised as was the case here–was never seriously entertained at Vulcan, and the Machinists continued to represent the shop employees until the plant was closed in 1998. (For some of my thoughts as to why people stick with unions even when the economic benefits are not apparent, click here.)


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