Battle on Town Lake

A union-organizing battle over work in progress at the new Town Lake Community Events Center has boiled over into a lawsuit. On Feb. 28, Austin's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Local 520) sued Titus Electrical Contracting Inc. for defamation, libel, and slander. Union spokesman and assistant business manager Michael Murphy charged the contractors with falsely accusing union members of "issuing death threats, attempting burglary, threatening law officers, and breaking laws aimed at organized crime." The company described the lawsuit as "frivolous" and reiterated its charges that the union has engaged in harassment and intimidation of Titus employees, including an alleged death threat against company president Ty Runyan.

The dispute dates to last fall, when Guy's Electrical of Marble Falls, a union shop and the original subcontractor on the events center project, declared bankruptcy, effectively laying off about 50 employees. The IBEW says the general contractor, MW Builders, is responsible for honoring the union contract, a dispute pending before the National Labor Relations Board. The contractor hired non-union Titus instead -- and union members, hoping to unionize Titus, have been picketing the job site or the company intermittently since January. IBEW says Titus has been discriminating against union members and women in hiring, and harassing its legal picketers. The company denies those allegations, and has charged IBEW with criminal threats and harassment.

Specifically, Murphy said one legal picketer at Titus has been charged with criminal trespass. Immediately following that incident, says Titus vice-president Shelley Runyan, someone phoned her husband Ty at the office and said, "'Hey, you MF, if you're going to have one of our people arrested, you better start wearing a bulletproof vest, because you're going to take a bullet, you MF.' So the person calling in identified himself as part of that group."

IBEW denies that its members have engaged in any threats; following the publication of Runyan's claim and related allegations in the Austin Business Journal and company memos, the union filed the defamation lawsuit. "Our picketing of Titus Electrical has been peaceful at all times," said Murphy. "While the picketing may not be comfortable for the company, our action is aimed at exercising our rights under federal law and the First Amendment to organize Titus employees."

Murphy acknowledged that the economic downturn has hurt union members, with many unemployed or working short-term jobs. A publicly-funded project like the events center should be held to high employment standards, he says, "rather than risk the higher likelihood that taxpayers will pay much more later for a job with faults." The labor dispute may not be resolved before the work is done. Titus says it has 28 to 30 workers on the job, and expects to finish on schedule in May.

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