Anger builds among brick workers

Little movement after 9 weeks of strike at Williamsport plant

August 17, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

WILLIAMSPORT -- These should be the best days for management and workers at Redland Brick Inc. The economy is good, and a regional brick shortage means everyone wants what the 127-year-old plant makes.

Instead, its kiln is cold. And its workers are outside, walking a picket line.

Redland's Cushwa Plant is in the ninth week of a strike that has produced brush fires of violence and a host of bad feelings in the town of 2,103 by the Potomac River in Washington County.

"The fuse is getting very short," says Mayor John Slayman. "The pocketbooks are getting empty. The bellies are getting empty. Both sides are losing."

A bargaining session Friday night in a conference room at Baltimore Washington International Airport ended without an agreement.

"When we left, we had nothing to bring back to the people," says Darl Shreve, business manager for Teamsters Local 992, which represents the 105 workers. "We have no future sessions scheduled."

Shreve says the sticking point is the company's insistence that replacement workers be given seniority over returning workers.

"That's just not acceptable to us," he says. "It wouldn't be a problem to bring them in at the bottom of the board after our people get their jobs back."

Strikers, who are drawing $55 a week from a union fund, say wages have never been the issue. Respect, they say, is.

Harold Nichols and Jesse Shoemaker Jr. say they're proud to have had a hand in making the brick that built the two stadiums at Baltimore's Camden Yards.

"The salesmen on the job got new cars. We got a slice of pizza," says Nichols, 34, a 16-year employee. "We've built Redland into millionaires. Record sales four straight years. All we want is to share the good times."

`A young man's job'

Shoemaker, a 38-year employee, called brick-making "a young man's job, with a lot of wear and tear" that often forces workers into early retirement.

The union has asked for a more liberal vacation policy to allow more than five workers at a time to take time off in the summer. It also wants medical insurance benefits extended to cover retirees from 62 to 65, when Medicare coverage kicks in.

But Redland President James Vinke says the company offer is competitive within the industry and in the region. Redland workers earn an average $13.50 an hour. The company's offer would raise that to $14.20 an hour.

Both sides say the union's bargaining committee has brokered a deal three times only to have the rank and file reject it on votes of 88-4, 43-38 and 57-31.

"We're always willing to talk," says Vinke. "But when they can't accept what the bargaining committee endorsed you get a little cynical about whether they're going to be able to sell anything."

Residents shake their heads when they talk about the strike -- the first at the plant in more than 20 years.

The Cushwa name is intertwined in the history of Williamsport. The Cushwa family built its name and financial base by shipping and receiving goods on the C&O Canal and the railroad.

A local institution

The family opened the brick plant in 1872. It was sold in 1996 to Redland, which also has plants in Pittsburgh and Hartford, Conn. Redland retained the Cushwa name because of its high standing in the construction industry.

At Wolfe's on the Square -- adorned with signs proclaiming "Bolts. Nails. Hunting Supplies. Tackle." -- Jack Slick has been watching trucks loaded with brick roar past his store for 40 years. The workers stop by before and after their shifts.

"You know the families. Some of them have 30 years in there and have just a couple of years to retirement," he says, shaking his head. "It's a shame the company isn't working with them."

Redland is hiring and training $9-an-hour replacements from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Each morning and afternoon, about 15 cars with replacement workers pass jeering men whose jobs they are taking.

A private security force tapes each encounter and Washington County sheriff's deputies offer around-the-clock protection for the factory and offices.

Washington County Circuit Judge W. Kennedy Boone III issued a restraining order against the union July 1 after hearing temporary workers complain of threats.

Despite the court order and $500 fine, the battle continues, with both sides keeping score.

One striker has been arrested on assault charges for allegedly kicking a security guard. Strikers say nonunion truckers tried to run them down on the sidewalk outside the plant.

A truck driver complained to sheriff's deputies that someone fired a pellet gun at him, and that someone tried to run him off the road.

The local newspaper issued an editorial "thumbs down" in the direction of the union Aug. 6 after two incidents: "A chemical explosive device" was tossed at a sheriff's cruiser and a fire was started outside the company offices.

Union spokesmen say they do not condone violence.

Slick says he doesn't think Redland will be able to be competitive with the replacement workers. Even with supervisors and the 10 to 20 replacements, production remains minimal.

"It's not an easy job down there. Back-breaking work. They won't last," he predicts.

Nichols says he will take another job and start over rather than cross the picket line. But he believes other workers might cave.

"They want to break the union," he says of Redland. "If 104 out of 105 cross the line, I'll be the 1."

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