DOL takes steelworkers union to court over election

February 13, 2010|By Andrea K. Walker | andrea.walker@baltsun.com

A feud among organized labor leaders at the Sparrows Point steel mill has led to a federal lawsuit and pitted employees against one another, adding to an already tense atmosphere at the plant, which faces potential layoffs by its Russian owner.

The Department of Labor has intervened with a lawsuit against the United Steelworkers Local 9477 union, which represents 2,500 workers at Sparrows Point. The union has been fragmented by different groups vying for leadership positions, and federal officials are seeking to void last year's election of high-ranking officers and to order a new vote supervised by the department. The lawsuit is awaiting a hearing in U.S. District Court in Maryland.

The lawsuit stems from complaints by the losing ticket in the election, the United Steelworkers for Action, that the incumbent party used dirty tactics to win the election. The allegations range from uncounted votes to misuse of company property for campaigns. The current leaders from the Red, White and Blue ticket vehemently deny the charges and have no plans of stepping down as the case moves through court.

The case comes amid shaky times for the Baltimore County steel mill and its workers. Severstal, the mill's Russian parent company, is almost certain to downsize as it tries to revive its underperforming North American properties, union leaders have said. The company laid out a draft proposal last year to cut as much as a third of the workforce, though those numbers could change as the economy begins to rebound. A number of employees have been laid off in recent months, but the company has declined to say how many.

Adding to the uncertainty, United Steelworkers International has spent more than a year negotiating without success a new contract for Sparrows Point workers that will address any cuts to jobs, salaries or health care benefits. With no agreement in sight, they have been working under an old contract extended month to month.

John Cirri, local union president since 2000, said it is the wrong time for divisiveness among employees.

"Right now, we're in the middle of still trying to secure a contract; we're in the middle of some major restructuring," Cirri said. "The company wants to permanently reduce our workforce by hundreds. With all this going on, it doesn't need to become so political. It weakens our hand against the company. It hurts your negotiating ability and divides your membership at a time when we need to be together."

The lawsuit calls for new elections for several positions including president, vice president, financial secretary, treasurer, trustee positions and members of the grievance committee. Employees vote for officer positions such as president, vice president and treasurer, and the plant is divided into zones so that members from each zone are elected to serve on a grievance committee.

A Labor Department spokeswoman declined to comment beyond the court records because the case is pending.

Sparrows Point spokeswoman Bette Kovach also wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, referring questions to the union.

Severstal owns five U.S. plants that have lost significant business in the recession, fueling speculation the plants might be closed or sold. The company has denied plans to sell its U.S. assets.

One labor expert said the turmoil and uncertainty at the Sparrows Point plant might make workers more willing to raise complaints.

"I think the mood down there is very unsettled," said Bill Barry, the head of the labor studies department at the Community College of Baltimore County. "This often reflects itself in election challenges."

Employees upset with the election results said Cirri and his party have used their positions to give themselves an advantage. Union officials work from a satellite office on company property, which might give them access to more resources, they said. The union leadership also has influence over union office jobs that can be used as bargaining chips, workers said.

"We just want to make sure we are all playing on the same field," said Chris Paul, an operating technician who works with heavy equipment at the plant. He ran for a position on the grievance committee and lost as an independent candidate with no party affiliation.

Most of the Labor Department allegations stem from one voter, James Matthew Sr., according to court records. Matthew was given the wrong voting card and put on a list of ineligible voters so that his vote didn't register, according to the lawsuit. One of the candidates in the zone where Matthew votes lost by one vote.

The incumbent ticket also is being accused of using Sparrows Point fax machines, copiers and the e-mail system to distribute campaign literature, which would be against company policy and a violation of federal law. The lawsuit alleges that because of this, the ticket was given an unfair advantage that could have affected the results.

"They used every company computer and fax," Paul said. "Whatever they had, they had carte blanche."

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