Union Woman Sees Better Days Ahead

Higher Pay, Revived Family Spirit

October 20, 1991|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

On her 25th birthday, Bonnie S. Biggus took shovel and broom in handand joined the men at the Lehigh Portland Cement Co.

"I wondered,why work as a waitress or a secretary when I could get dirty and make a lot of money," she said.

She was only the third woman hired at the plant. That was 15 years ago.

Today, 13 women work there -- five in the plant, six in clerical jobs and two in management.

Biggus works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday in the kiln control room, where the job -- checking the flow of raw material and fuel -- can be hot and dirty.Like others at the plant, which employs about 190 workers, she usually works Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July and other holidays.

Every other Monday, she and her husband, who works at a MontgomeryCounty liquor store, share a day off. If she had children, the schedule would be almost unbearable, she said.

She often is called backinto work in her off-hours for overtime, she said. That can be hard on her husband because it means he has to eat dinner alone or watch TV with a wife who can't keep her eyes open.

But she doesn't complain much about the extra hours.

"I'm kind of an OT hog," she said. "I like money."

Biggus, a lifelong Union Mills resident, said she knows all but about a dozen workers at the plant. Lehigh used to be amore family-oriented place, she said, with fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and cousins working together.

Today, she's angry at the company where she has spent 15 years and where she plans to spend at least 15 more. Hourly employees haven't had a raise since 1983, when they agreed to delay a 50-cent-an-hour increase for a year, and have been in turmoil with their union for about seven years. She earns about $13 an hour.

The company has taken advantage of its work force by taking away benefits -- such as vacation days -- and not bargaining fairly, she said, and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers did not properly represent workers.

In 1987, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Lehigh had violated labor laws in 1984 by putting contract proposals into effect without first bargaining to an impasse with the union.

Last June, workers in the plant overwhelmingly voted in a new union -- the United Paperworkers International, based in Nashville, Tenn. Biggus and others say they hope this is the beginning of a new era in company-employee relations.

"For some strange reason, after all the screwing we've gotten the last few years, we're setting records in production," Biggus said. "We keep plugging along doing our jobs. Everybody has pride in their work."

Biggus said she hopes union representatives who negotiate a new contract for the workers will be able to find out how much money Lehigh will save ifit gets state permission to burn carbon waste and hazardous wastes as fuels. The savings should translate into higher wages for employees, she said, adding that she believes the company could burn wastes safely.

"I don't want you to think I hate my job; I don't," she said. "I like what Lehigh used to be and could be again.

"I have renewed optimism for a peaceful coexistence between the company and the union."

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