Aberdeen employees protest Army plans to privatize jobs

Vietnam veterans group organizes rally in support of civilian workers

July 08, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

A group of Aberdeen Proving Ground employees braved the heat yesterday to protest the potential loss of up to 558 jobs because of the Army's decision to privatize some nonmilitary work at the Harford County base.

The rally, organized by the Vietnam Veterans of Aberdeen Proving Ground/Edgewood Area, drew about 100 people who held signs and waved to honking drivers outside the base's gate on Route 24.

Clint Smith, one of the organizers of yesterday's protest, said the group wants to draw attention to the disruption for workers at Aberdeen, which is among the county's largest employers.

"It means a lot of us will not have the opportunity to retire," said Smith, a materiel handler who has worked at the base for 15 years. "We served our country with honor, we put our lives on the line, and the payback we get is downsizing and being moved out of our jobs."

The protest came in response to the Army's recently approved plan to privatize several types of jobs at the base, including building and grounds maintenance, environmental and safety operations and recreational activities that had been provided by civilians. Officials said the move, to take effect in January, is part of an Army-wide effort to cut costs.

John Yaquiant, a spokesman for APG, said an appeal has been filed by an employee to reverse the decision, and the Army is considering the appeal. He said officials at Aberdeen are trying to work with potential displaced workers.

"We understand their concern, and we are sympathetic," Yaquiant said. "We will make every attempt to ensure that they find other employment if the decision is not reversed by the appeals process."

Some employees would be offered early retirement or voluntary separation bonuses. But those protesting yesterday said that is not enough.

"I've been here 27 years, but I am only 45 years old and I can't afford to retire yet," said Dave Harding, a heavy equipment operator at the base. "I have lost a finger, I am in the early stages of asbestosis, and I have problems with my right wrist. Who on the outside is going to want to hire me with all of my health problems?"

For workers like Robert Sunderland, downsizing not only means the loss of a livelihood -- it may also mean moving from the Harford County area in search for other jobs.

"I just live two miles away, and I have a kid in college and one on the way to college," said Sunderland, a truck driver who has been employed with the federal government for 21 years. "Something like this changes everything and affects your whole life."

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins came to the rally site yesterday to hear the employees' concerns. Harkins said he is meeting with Army officials to try to keep the jobs at the base. He also is working on initiatives to ease the displacement if it occurs.

"We are looking at -- as soon as it becomes clear the number of people who will be affected -- holding a job fair to match job skills with employers and try and soften the landing for these people as much as possible," Harkins said.

Protest organizers said they would like to see the base phase in privatization and allow workers to retire on schedule so they can receive their full benefits.

"We want to stress that this is not a demonstration or protest against the United States government," Smith said. "We just want to draw attention to what's happening in the hopes that the Army will change its mind."

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