Labor group picks fight with Menards over union-busting practices

Managers lose 60 percent of their pay if a union forms under their watch.

Managers lose 60 percent of their pay if a union forms under their watch.

Everyone loved longtime Menards pitchman Ray Szmanda, the grandfatherly face of the home improvement store until the late '90s. But not everyone is a fan of the kitchen sink emporium’s labor practices.

Last week a New York labor group filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, company. The Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153 is accusing the company of trying to keep any prospects of employees organizing under its work boot. Their main beef is a longstanding clause in store managers’ contracts that slashes their pay by 60 percent if a union forms under their watch.

“This is outrageous,” says Seth Goldstein, a senior business representative for the Local 153. “It would be bad news for any union trying to protect employees’ right to engage in organizing, or collective bargaining, or speaking out. We felt it’s something that we had to do to challenge this.”

Beyond the labor-quashing clause, which dates back to at least 2003, Goldstein says a litany of provisions in Menards’ employee handbook infringe upon workers’ rights protected by national labor laws. He notes one section in particular proudly declaring Menards’ non-union status and preference to remain that way. As its handbook states, Menards is an at-will employer and Goldstein alleges that employees have been canned without being given a reason and there’s a $810 fee to get a copy of their personal file, which could explain it.

“It’s not just a direct assault on unions, but it’s an assault on their rights every day at work,” he says.

A Menards spokesman did not return calls seeking comment Monday. But billionaire owner John Menard Jr. has an anti-union reputation.

This spring Yahoo reported that the hardware boss — who’s been dubbed the richest man in Wisconsin — gave upwards of $1.5 million to a political advocacy group backing famous union buster Gov. Scott Walker. Over the past two years the company has also received up to $1.8 million in tax breaks from an economic development group Walker once chaired.

In 2007, a former employee told Milwaukee Magazine he was required to attend a union-fighting seminar after being promoted to assistant manager.

A spokesperson with the National Labor Relations Board’s Minneapolis office, which is investigating the charges, says the board hasn’t seen any charges against the company since 2009. Once its investigation is complete, the board will decide whether or not to take legal action. Meanwhile, Goldstein says he will consult with Menards employees about what their options are.