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A federal judge has ordered one of the region’s most prominent environmental groups to set aside $55,000 that it might owe in a pending labor fairness case nearly two months after it announced it was shutting down operations.

U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers signed off Tuesday on an agreement between the National Labor Relations Board and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition for the latter to place $55,000 into the registry of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia in 72 hours or less.

The National Labor Relations Board had said the Huntington-based environmental organization known as OVEC did not adequately assure that $50,000 OVEC said it was holding in an account would be used to satisfy any settlement or final judgment of liability against the dissolving nonprofit for what the board said was the unlawful firing of two employees in May 2021.

Chambers had on Dec. 29 signed a temporary restraining order submitted by the NLRB permitting the board to request a temporary injunction provided for under federal labor law to stop an employer or union from engaging in unfair labor practices.

Chambers on Tuesday vacated that temporary restraining order effective when the funds are deposited into the court’s registry.

The terminations came amid contentious collective bargaining negotiations between OVEC and its union, formed last year in affiliation with the Industrial Workers of the World international labor union. OVEC workers announced their intention to unionize in March, when they submitted a request for voluntary recognition from management.

The union’s demands included a standardized pay scale, equitable discipline policy and the right to union representation at any meeting where matters affecting pay, hours, benefits, advancement or layoffs were discussed.

OVEC’s board voted to dissolve the organization formed in 1987 on Nov. 16 amid stalled negotiations with the union, which workers certified in a July election managed by the NLRB.

OVEC said upon announcing it was closing its doors in November that its assets would be distributed to nonprofits with similar missions.

OVEC’s board suspended then-director of organizing Brendan Muckian-Bates with pay in March before firing him in May, saying he was unlawfully participating in union activities as a supervisor. The NLRB ruled in June the organization failed to show that Muckian-Bates was a supervisor under federal labor law.

The board fired coalition project coordinator Dustin White in May, alleging he violated organization civility rules during an email exchange.

After a regional director issues a complaint in an unfair labor practice case, an NLRB administrative law judge hears the case and issues a decision and recommended order.

NLRB Region 9 Regional Director Matthew Denholm said in an emailed statement Thursday that he was pleased with Chambers issuing the agreed upon order requiring the $55,000 deposit from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

"This order is crucial to ensuring that sufficient assets will remain to compensate the discharged employees," Denholm said.   

A NLRB compliance officer said OVEC owed Muckian-Bates and White a combined $43,794 in back pay, pension contributions, lost gains on the pension contributions and interest, not including as-yet unliquidated medical expenses and OVEC’s share of cellphone and internet costs it had been paying for the two former employees.

The NLRB said in its motion for a temporary restraining order there is “reasonable cause to believe” that allegations OVEC engaged in unfair labor practices that violate federal labor law are true.

Allegations include that OVEC board member Mike Forman coercively informed employees the board knew of employees’ union organization efforts and interrogated employees about their union activities in March, and that OVEC suspended and terminated Muckian-Bates and White in May and issued written warnings to community organizer Alex Cole in June and July because they engaged in union activities.

OVEC defended its firings of White and Muckian-Bates in response to the NLRB’s injunction request through Huntington-based attorney Sarah A. Walling, of Jenkins Fenstermaker PLLC.

White had a five-year history of online conduct violating organization policies before harassing and threatening members of OVEC’s board in May 2021, OVEC said, attributing his termination to that history.

OVEC cited White’s placement on an employee performance-improvement plan in March 2018 after directing vulgarities at a Facebook user he was arguing with from his personal account on the social media platform, and a November 2020 email OVEC Executive Director Vivian Stockman received from a coalition supporter concerned about White’s “vehemence” in certain Facebook posts.

OVEC accused Cole of aggression and bullying, saying he was issued disciplinary warnings as a result of his behavior in staff meetings.

The organization maintains that Muckian-Bates was a supervisor unlawfully unionizing and contends it never contested the employees’ right to form a union.

OVEC said its board voted to dissolve the organization in November because resignations tendered by Stockman and co-director Tonya Adkins effective Dec. 31 due to what they say was a hostile work climate would have left Cole and another worker as the only employees going into 2022.

The NLRB had concluded that OVEC could implement a plan to disburse its remaining funds at an OVEC board meeting scheduled for this past Saturday and concluded that it might release assets that could be used to satisfy any potential back pay order in response to the unfair labor allegations lodged against the organization.

Walling declined NLRB requests in December to set aside funds to satisfy potential back-pay liability, the NLRB said. Walling said OVEC was not required to do so before on Dec. 23 declining to “give any additional assurance” that funds she acknowledged were being held in an account would be used for satisfying potential back-pay liability, according to the agency.

Walling said in a filing in response to the NLRB’s petition that OVEC counsel advised the agency that its request for the organization to retain $50,000 likely would require approval at OVEC’s Jan. 8 board meeting.

Walling did not respond to a request for comment.

Ohio Valley environmental advocates have decried the region’s loss of OVEC, noting the organization’s work raising concerns about petrochemical development, environmental justice activism and educational support for residents affected by surface mining.

This story has been updated to include comment provided by the NLRB Thursday.

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached

at 304-348-1236 or Follow

@Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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