Labor dispute comes to Superior

Protests at Central Flats, a union construction site, are intended to call attention to one of P&R Properties' vendors.
Superior Mayor Jim Paine rides his bike past two protest balloons outside of the Central Flats building along Grand Avenue in Superior on Monday afternoon, June 22. (Jed Carlson /

The trucks circling the 1000 block of Belknap Street with a giant rat and hog on a trailer aren’t protesting the construction of Central Flats, the city of Superior or the developer of the project, P&R Properties.

The engineers local is on site because of a labor dispute with Sunbelt Rentals, which was contracted to provide equipment necessary to build the five-story, mixed-use facility on the site of the former Central school.

“Absolutely not,” said Mike Ervin, organizing director for Operating Engineers Local 139. “We’re just going to go wherever we see (Sunbelt Rental) equipment.”

The dispute that brought the operators union to the streets of Superior recently actually got its start more than two years ago at the opposite end of the state, in the Racine County town of Franksville, Ervin said.

Dating back to March 13, 2018, the Operating Engineers Local 139 were certified as the bargaining representatives after a National Labor Relations Board election, Ervin said.


“Seven of the employees at the Franksville Sunbelt shop … voted the union in 7-0," he said.

Because of the union vote, Ervin said the company is required under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act to negotiate with the union. He said it took two months to set up a meeting, then meetings were canceled and company officials wouldn’t meet more than once a month.

“It just seemed that they weren’t bargaining in good faith,” Ervin said.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 filed an unfair practices labor charge with the National Labor Relations Board in February 2019.

A month later, Ervin said the union started passing out handbills across the state to call attention to the matter.

“On March 18, we started bannering across the state, which is what you see there,” Ervin said. “We’re out there with our signs, with the inflatables to get the attention. We’re letting the public know we have a labor dispute.”

It’s a dispute that has been upheld by Administrative Law Judge Michael A. Rosas after a five-day trial in Milwaukee. In May, the judge filed a decision citing four violations of the National Labor Relations Act by Sunbelt Rentals in Franksville. Rosas found the company failed to bargain in good faith with the union representing the workers in Franksville over a 16-month period, engaged in coercive actions intended to undermine the union, eliminated the bargaining unit by permanently laying off two employees and transferring the work to a nonunion facility, and interrogating employees in connection with their testimony in the case.

Rosas' decision ordered the company to rehire the employees and directed the company to begin bargaining with the union.


Sunbelt Rentals, a subsidiary of London-based Ashtead Group, is appealing the decision and the case remains open. The international construction and equipment rental company has national networks across the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Adam Johnson, superintendent at P&R Companies, said the organization hires union labor on its construction projects. However, Sunbelt is the only vendor that can support their needs in that price range, and he’s under contractual obligation so removing the equipment isn’t an option.

“We’ve accepted that this is probably going to be what the summer looks like,” Johnson said.

It’s not Local 139's goal to get the equipment off the site, or any construction site in Wisconsin, Ervin said.

“We are continuing to banner across the state wherever we see their equipment,” Ervin said. “We’re trying to get people to support those workers.”

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