Cement plant union, management agree to end years of dispute

June 19, 1995|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Sun Staff Writer

Workers and management at Lehigh Portland Cement Co. say their relationship has improved so much they plan to bury the hatchet at a ceremony this morning at the Union Bridge plant.

"It's a miracle," said Jeff Griffith, a Westminster attorney who helped negotiate an agreement between the two sides, which have been at odds for at least 10 years because of contract disputes.

Plant Manager David H. Roush and Bonnie Biggus, president of Local 10031 of the United Paperworkers International Union, said Friday they would explain how the agreement came about at a 9:30 a.m. news conference today.

Ms. Biggus, a Lehigh employee for 19 years, said union leaders took the initiative to make a change.

"It became imperative to try to find a way to make changes, so that people did not hate to get up in the morning and go to work at Lehigh," she said.

Employees at the cement plant worked for three years without a contract before signing a three-year pact in September. Relations had become so bitter that workers picketed outside Mr. Roush's Westminster home in May 1994.

Some of the disputes arose when Lehigh officials, trying to find a fuel less expensive than coal to burn in the plant's kilns, began burning waste oils. About 25 employees have required hospital treatment over the past few years after they breathed noxious fumes and became ill on the job.

Ms. Biggus said workers were disappointed with the new contract because, among other things, not all employees received raises they considered fair and because the pact does not adequately recognize seniority.

Some Lehigh employees had not received a pay raise in 10 years. The workers went on strike in 1984.

Ms. Biggus said she and local union Vice President David Arnold asked Mr. Griffith for assistance in January. Mr. Griffith, a former Carroll County Commissioner, is a vice president and general counsel for the Maryland Alliance for Labor-Management Cooperation.

The alliance, formerly called the Baltimore Area Labor-Management Committee, works to improve relations between labor and management through training, job retention strategies and cooperative programs.

Union leaders thought the alliance might be able to help them improve relations with Lehigh management, Ms. Biggus said. Mr. Roush agreed.

"I give Dave Roush credit for taking the olive branch," Ms. Biggus said.

"This is an historic opportunity to change the way we do business with each other," Mr. Roush said in a news release last week.

Lehigh and the union have agreed to work toward "total quality management," which allows workers more autonomy and more zTC say in decision-making, Mr. Griffith said.

The company and the union have established "The Bridge," a 14-member steering committee that has begun meeting to identify concerns at the plant, which employs 200 people. Seven committee members are from management and seven are from the union.

"Both union and management showed real guts in committing themselves to make this happen," Maryland Alliance President David Fontaine said in a news release.

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