UNION BRIDGE — Workers at Lehigh Portland Cement Co. flashed the thumbs-up sign to each other late Thursday afternoon when they learned they would be represented by a new union.
"It's been a long, hard time for us, butit has paid off," said Skip Buffington of New Windsor, a union representative and 25-year employee.
Plant manager David H. Roush said, "We're also pleased we've cometo this point. People had a chance to vote and have chosen a union they want. Soon, we'll be able to get down to the process of negotiating a contract they want."
Production and maintenance employees -- who make up the majority of workers at the plant -- voted in the United Paperworkers International Union on Thursday and rejected the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, which had represented them since 1984.
Only three of the plant's 146 production and maintenance workers voted not to be represented by a union.
Clerical and laboratory workers -- 17 in all -- voted not to be represented by a union any more.
No one voted for the Boilermakers.
Only one of the 163 employees eligible to vote in the election did not vote, Roush said.
Employees expressed relief after the vote, saying they hope new union representation will help close a bitter chapter in labor-management relations.
"I'm just so elated, I'm almost at a loss for words," said Richard L. Stultz of Union Bridge as he stood outside the building where employees change clothes. A group of co-workers stood nearby discussing the vote. "The Paperworkers will be a big help to us," he said.
Buffington said, "We hope to get back to a fair and just contract."
Relations at the plant have been strained since workers went on strike in 1984 after Lehigh put contract proposals into effect without first bargaining to an impasse with the union.
The union filed unfair labor practices charges over the action with the National Labor Relations Board and won a $5 million settlement last year. Workers at nine Lehigh plants shared the money, which was distributed last month.
Also in 1984, the United Cement, Lime and Gypsum Workers, which had represented employees since the plant was unionized in the 1930s, merged with the Boilermakers. Lehigh employees became dissatisfied with the representation by the Boilermakers and have beentrying to get out since 1985, said James E. Harris, union leader at the plant.
The most recent contract between the Boilermakers and the company expired April 30.
Buffington, a shop steward, said workers hope to negotiate an increase in salary and pension benefits in the new contract. They also want a clause that allows promotions basedon seniority and language that provides for a closed union shop at the plant, he said.
Roush said, "We will be negotiating a contract from a blank piece of paper."
Jimmie L. Colston of Mansfield, Ga.,a Paperworkers organizer, said, "We want good relations with the company. It's a two-way street."
In another matter, Roush said Lehighhas decided to appeal a decision by the Maryland Department of the Environment that denied the company permission to burn carbon waste inits kilns as a fuel. Lehigh said the waste is non-hazardous, but thestate said it could be hazardous.