A Month Before Vote, Lehigh Denies Trying To 'Bust Union'

May 22, 1991|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

BALTIMORE — A union leader at Lehigh Portland Cement Co. says brochures being distributed by the company are an attempt to bust the union, but the plant manager says the missives simply are meant to inform workers about an election next month.

Yesterday, representatives from Lehigh and two unions negotiated in closed sessions for six hours at NationalLabor Relations Board offices here about how the June 20 election will be conducted.

Workers will vote on whether they want the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the Nashville, Tenn.-based United Paperworkers International Union or no union to represent them.

"We have a feeling of relief because an election date has been set," said James E. Harris, union leader at the plant.

Hugh Earls, director of labor andemployee relations for Lehigh at its headquarters in Allentown, Pa.,said, "Both parties compromised. Nobody's ever totally satisfied about a compromise, but we're willing to live with it."

Harris said the brochures, 8 1/2-by-11-inch pieces of white paper folded in half, printed on both sides and being distributed by foremen, are seen as away to divide the ranks.

"It's an attempt to bust the union," said Harris, who has worked at the plant 17 years. The brochures are "designed to raise questions in everybody's mind," he said.

Plant manager David H. Roush said the papers are meant to answer questions workers have been asking their supervisors.

"Our belief is that employees can make the best possible decision if they have all the facts,"he said.

The papers are written in question-and-answer style and give workers information about the Paperworkers and Boilermakers. Oneasks, "Is the company trying to bust the union?" The answer is "No. If the employees decide that they wish to be represented by one of the unions on the ballot, the company will negotiate in good faith withthat representative."

Roush said Lehigh has hired Nobel Miller Jr., a New York consultant, to ensure that the company does not do anything to leave itself open to charges of unfair labor practices.

"You can void an election by doing the wrong thing," he said.

Millercould not be reached for comment yesterday.

Jimmy L. Colston of Mansfield, Ga., and an international organizer for the Paperworkers, said he will talk to workers in Union Bridge to try to convince them to switch unions. He said he will make house calls, attend union meetings and distribute handbills.

Lehigh employees have belonged to the Boilermakers since 1984 but have been dissatisfied with the representation and have been trying to get out since 1985, Harris said. Workers were able to get NLRB permission to vote on a new union only after an unfair labor practice suit filed against Lehigh seven years ago was resolved.

The NLRB ruled in 1987 that Lehigh violated labor law in 1984 by putting contract proposals into effect without first bargaining to an impasse with the union. A settlement was not reached until last year.

Harris said most employees want to join the Paperworkers. About 130 of them have signed cards saying that, he said.

The plant has about 200 workers, about 30 of which are management. Theothers work in one of three job categories under union jurisdiction:production and maintenance, clerical or laboratory workers.

Yesterday, the two unions and the company agreed to consider the clerical workers a separate bargaining unit, if they vote to be represented byone of the unions. The plant has nine clerical workers, Harris said.

The Paperworkers would rather have all workers in one bargaining unit, said union attorney Lynn C. Ivanick of Nashville, Tenn. But negotiating with the company on that point would've taken time, she said.

"We wanted a quick election," Ivanick said.

Depending on the vote, it's possible workers could be represented by different unions.

Michael J. Stapp, an attorney for the Boilermakers from Kansas City, Kan., said no organizers from the Boilermakers are in Union Bridge now. He would not comment about whether there would be any Boilermaker organizing in the town before the election.

Harris said of theBoilermakers, "They've written us off."

NLRB officials will conduct the election and count the votes.

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