Lehigh union workers ratify contract

September 25, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

After three years, Lehigh Portland Cement finally has a contract with its union employees.

Union members say it's an agreement with which they can live.

"It's not a great agreement, but it's the best we could do at this time," said James Harris, president of the Union Bridge unit of the United Paperworkers, Lehigh's union.

"There are a number of things in the contract most people are not satisfied with. But it has been ratified and we need to get on with the business at hand."

Employees at the Union Bridge plant -- one of four negotiating together for the contract -- voted last week to ratify the agreement, which had been approved by union and company negotiators Sept. 2.

Similar votes at three other Lehigh plants last week -- at York, Pa.; Leeds, Ala.; and Mitchell, Ind. -- made the contract official.

"We all took our votes to Mitchell to be counted," said Mr. Harris, noting that the final count was done Thursday. "It was ratified by a substantial margin."

The 150 hourly employees at the Union Bridge plant had been working without a contract since voting to leave the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers and join the Paperworkers in April 1991.

The three-year contract gives employees an average 14 percent wage increase the first year, with 3 percent increases the next two years, Mr. Harris said.

The old wage scale ran from $8.43 per hour for entry-level employees up to $14.26 per hour.

Also, the agreement guarantees a $4 increase in the pension ZTC formula the first year, with 50-cent increases the next two years, he said.

"That sounds like a lot of money," Mr. Harris said. "But a majority of the employees haven't had an increase in the past 10 years. When you divide that out over that period of time, it comes out to less than 2 percent a year."

Union employees will be given an prescription card as part of their health insurance, he said.

"Our deductible has increased," Mr. Harris said. "We have more out-of-pocket expenses now."

Each employee also received a $500 signing bonus, and the union will again be able to take grievances to arbitration, he said.

"The problem has been that for the last three years, if we had a grievance, the company's decision was the final decision," Mr. Harris said. "Now we can take a grievance, if we feel it's a good grievance, to arbitration."

But Mr. Harris said the company would not agree to a joint union-management committee overseeing the burning of waste oil at the plant. Employees sought such a provision because they said workers have become ill after breathing noxious fumes.

At least 24 Lehigh employees have been sent to the hospital for examination in a total of four incidents during the past two years.

"We were unable to get that," said Mr. Harris.

Most employees believe they would have had more bargaining power if Senate Bill 55 -- a law that allows employers to replace striking workers -- had not been passed this year.

"We also hadn't had a raise in a long time," Mr. Harris said. "I think that had an impact on the outcome of the vote. But now we need to go on from here."

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