Lehigh workers resuming picketing at Union Bridge plant, manager's home

May 13, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

Lehigh Portland Cement employees took to the streets again yesterday, spending their free time letting people know about what they consider to be hazardous conditions at the Union Bridge plant.

But not everyone appreciated the free information.

On one side of the county, truck drivers hesitated to enter the Union Bridge plant for fear of breaking a strike line and residents flashed "thumbs up" to encourage the nearly 30 workers who stood by the entrance after ending their shift.

Meanwhile, plant manager David H. Roush's neighbors outside Westminster called the police about a dozen people walking quietly up and down the street.

Lehigh workers had also picketed in both places over the weekend.

"They're not used to this," said Bonnie Biggus, an 18-year Lehigh employee. "Dave Roush is used to seeing this outside the plant, but Mrs. Roush isn't."

Maryland State Police officers came in response to a call that the pickets were blocking traffic, Ms. Biggus said. The group moved their cars to one side of the street and agreed to stay off private property, she said.

"We don't want to cause trouble," said Skip Buffington, who was part of the Union Bridge picket. Mr. Buffington has been a Lehigh employee for 27 years.

But workers said they are frustrated with unsafe work conditions, low pay and working without a contract for 2 1/2 years. Some senior employees have not received a raise in 10 years, they said.

Union employees have been trying to negotiate a new contract since they voted to leave the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers and join the United Paperworkers International Union in 1991.

"I don't think they care a lot about our health," said Ms. Biggus, sporting a "United we bargain, divided we beg" button. "I remember when things used to be pretty good. It's a shame."

Workers are concerned about the chemical content of waste oil being burned at the plant for fuel, she said.

When they request safety data sheets on the content, parts of the document have been removed, Ms. Biggus said. Also, union requests to serve on the committee that oversees waste oil selection have been rejected, she said.

Other picketing employees wore signs that said "Why does Lehigh hate me and my family?" and "I survived the Hazmat incident at Lehigh." Employees have been sent to the hospital three times in the past two years after being sickened by waste oil fumes.

Mr. Roush confirmed that a variety of oils -- from printer's ink to used crankcase oil -- are burned at the plant. However, they are all nonhazardous and are analyzed before and after delivery, he said.

"We've been doing this since 1986 and been under the scrutiny of [the Maryland Department of the Environment] throughout," he said.

Employees also said they had been required to clean up asbestos in one of the mill rooms where limestone, shale and gypsum are ground.

Mr. Roush said asbestos insulation is found from time to time. However, he said he wouldn't characterize it as a problem.

"When we see it, we sample it and have a licensed asbestos remover remove it," Mr. Roush said. "I wouldn't say we've had any trouble with that."

The plant manager said the last time employees received a raise was May 1990 as part of the last contract. Currently, the wage scale runs from $8.43 per hour for entry-level employees up to $14.26 per hour.

Employees also receive from two to five weeks of vacation, medical, dental and some life insurance fully paid by the company, he said.

"In this business, everyone who is hired starts at an entry-level position," Mr. Roush said. "Then you move to other kinds of jobs which pay more."

However, employees said that last raise was not across the board. Also, starting employees receive a dollar less per hour than base pay for the first year, they said.

"That's for the kind of job where you work a jackhammer on hot coals and sometimes your shoes catch on fire," said Ms. Biggus, who is a kiln burner at the plant. "It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

"These are high responsibility jobs where it's very easy to be hurt. And we could be working at McDonald's for $5 an hour."

XTC Starting salary and insurance benefits have also dropped in the past 10 years, she said. Entry-level workers made $10.91 in 1983, Ms. Biggus said.

"We used to have the best insurance policy in Carroll County," she said. "Now, it's not very good at all."

Union employees are not planning to go on strike because they could be permanently replaced under current federal law, said employee Jack Harris.

"They've got us over a barrel," he said, noting that Lehigh employees are closely watching U.S. Senate bill 55, which would forbid permanent replacements for striking workers. "That's the only weapon we have."

In addition, Lehigh can refuse to arbitrate grievances because there is no contract in effect at the plant. Grievances have recently been filed over two employees fired in the past two months, Mr. Harris said.

"If we're wrong, we're wrong," he said. "But the arbitrator should have the final say. Here, the company has the final say."

Union representatives have met three times this year with company officials, Mr. Roush said. Further negotiations are tentatively scheduled for the Union Bridge plant on June 6, he said. Company officials are negotiating at the Leeds, Ala., plant May 23 and just finished talking at the York, Pa., plant earlier this week.

Several workers said they'd heard the York negotiations moved further this week than they had in the past two years.

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