A federal judge is expected to decide Friday whether to issue a temporary restraining order barring striking Verizon Communications Inc. workers from picketing outside several area hotels housing out-of-town replacement workers.
The National Labor Relations Board requested the restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the striking Verizon workers, accusing picketers of unlawfully harassing replacement workers outside their motels, accosting guests, and blocking traffic in an effort to pressure the motels to kick out the replacement workers.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers attorney Wendy M. Bittner acknowledged in court that picketers have “no way to tell who’s what at these motels,” and that “there may have been picketing of hotels where people are simply sleeping.”
“We know we have a right to primary picketing,” she said, adding that problems could be avoided if Verizon would communicate with picketers. “If we messed up, tell us.”
Though Bittner insisted that “lawful picketing is not limited to replacement workers,” she acknowledged union workers were advised to take a “small hiatus” from job actions outside motels.
Colleen M. Fleming, attorney for the NLRB’s Boston office, said that picketers have targeted people at motels who are obviously not replacement workers, including blocking a tour bus filled with Canadian students, a car with an elderly couple, and a minivan with children inside.
Fleming said that letters sent by IBEW locals to motel managers asking them to “stop giving aid and comfort to Verizon’s out of town replacement work force” is direct evidence of the unions illegally asking a neutral business to stop doing business with Verizon as a result of the labor dispute.
Striking workers are “free to continue to put lawful economic pressure on Verizon . . . so long as it doesn’t enmesh the commercial properties in the dispute,” Fleming said.
US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper told attorneys for the NLRB, the IBEW, and Verizon after a hearing Thursday afternoon that she understands that “time is of the essence.”
On Wednesday the IBEW, which represents some of the striking Verizon workers, asked ngthat the court deny the NLRB’s request.
The union said striking workers are lawfully picketing at hotels and motels because, they say, Verizon’s replacement workers aren’t just staying at those locations but are also performing some of their job duties there.
“The alleged conduct and speech attributed to the workers, who are on strike, with no income or health insurance, is a fallacious appeal to pity,” the IBEW said in its filing. “Calling people names and chanting, ‘Scabs, go home,’ is perfectly lawful. That it may offend some people’s sensibilities does not make it less so, and it is irrelevant.”
But once replacement workers leave for work each day, the IBEW said, its strikers reduce their picketing activity, focusing on holding banners encouraging a boycott of the motels and passing out leaflets to the general public outside the properties.
The IBEW also alleged that Verizon is playing a “game of cat and mouse” by going to great lengths to conceal from picketers that work is occurring at hotels and motels.
The NLRB filed a response with the court Thursday morning, reasserting its position that the union’s picketing of the hotels is illegal because it is doing so in order to “enmesh the hotels in [the IBEW’s] labor dispute with Verizon,” by pressuring them to kick out replacement employees.
The labor board also denied that Verizon is trying to evade picketers, adding that the law doesn’t require Verizon to provide picketers with the identities and schedules of replacement workers.
The NLRB sought the restraining order and injunction Monday after Verizon New England Inc. filed a complaint with the labor agency against an IBEW group, alleging picketers were illegally disrupting its business and the hotels and motels by blocking entrances, blowing air horns at 6 a.m., confronting guests with no connection to Verizon, and vandalizing vehicles used by replacement workers.
About 39,000 Verizon landline and cable workers from the East Coast, including about 5,000 in Massachusetts, walked off the job April 13 after contract negotiations stalled. The workers have been without a contract since last August.