Workers at Umatilla Chemical Depot vote union

UMATILLA - Workers at the Washington Demilitarization Co. voted 85-72 to join Operating Engineers Local 701 and Electrical Workers Local 112 in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election April 15. Ballots were counted April 30.

The company, formerly the Raytheon Co., contracted with the U.S. Army to build and operate the Umatilla Chemical Depot, a 19,728-acre facility located in northeastern Oregon, on the border of Morrow and Umatilla counties, that stores more than 3,700 tons of deadly chemical weapons.

About 110 of the 167 workers who will operate the facility will be Local 701 members. The remainder will join Local 112. They organized and will negotiate a first contract under the Demil Trades Council (DTC).

It is the second unit of employees of Washington Demilitarization Co., a subsidiary of The Washington Group, to unionize. Bend, Ore.-based Laborers Local 121 represents warehouse employees at the company's Umatilla facility.

The Washington Group operates Army incineration sites at Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific, Pine Bluff, Ark., Tooele, Utah, and Anniston, Ala.

Local 701 initially filed for a union election last November for the operations department at Umatilla. The company appealed and the NLRB ruled that operations could not be a separate bargaining unit and could only become union in a combined group with the maintenance and technical support departments.

The company planned this, union officials said, believing that workers in the three "very different departments" would never join together. But Local 701 and IBEW Local 112 banded together to create the DTC, which collected enough authorization cards to file for an election.

WDC then engaged in a hardball, union-busting campaign that included firing several workers, threats of lost benefits and dozens of mandatory captive audience meetings where workers were paid (often at overtime rates) to listen to anti-union propaganda, union officials said. The company even sent a video to everyone's home suggesting that they "watch it with your families," trying to scare workers (or their spouses) about all the bad things to come if they made the "wrong" choice.

Local 701 has filed several unfair labor practice complaints with the NLRB.

"The company told workers they were lucky to be working hoisting and toting chemicals that if one drop spilled would kill everything in a 10 mile radius," said Local 701 attorney Jim O'Connor.

He described the union victory as "extraordinary" because it involved two locals that have had differences in the past and neither of which has experienced organizers on staff.

"We went hat in hand to the Oregon AFL-CIO Organizing Committee for assistance and they, along with AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), and Laborers Local 483, sent staff to Eastern Oregon to help us out," said O'Connor.

The Demil Trades Council is ready to start bargaining as soon as possible, but first the election must be certified. The company has filed objections over the election with the NLRB, claiming the unions illegally posted material at the election site and that union observers conducted themselves poorly.

"It's obviously a stall tactic by the employer," said Local 701's Cherry Harris, who was active in the organizing campaign.

May 17, 2002 issue

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