Boydstun Metal Works fires union supporter, father of 11

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Ivan Tkatch, a 44-year-old Ukranian immigrant and father of 11, had a perfect record at Boydstun Metal Works. In three years of working 12-hour shifts at the North Portland manufacturer of auto transport trailers, Tkatch had no sick days and was never once late. Twice he was laid off during industry downturns, but each time received glowing letters of recommendation, and each time was hired back when the downturns ended.

"Ivan was everything an employer could hope for in an employee," wrote human resources chief Sharlene Boyd in a letter dated Jan. 30, 2002. "He was hard working, dedicated, cooperative, and friendly."

In all of his performance reviews, Tkatch met or exceeded expectations. "Very, very good in all areas" wrote a supervisor in one such review.

Yet on Nov. 25, Tkatch was told to take his tools and get out - he was fired.

Why would Boydstun terminate such a model employee? Leaders of Portland-based Sheet Metal Workers Local 16, who've been waging an organizing drive since May 2002, say there's no question - he was fired for his open support of the union campaign, and they've filed a complaint on his behalf with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Like others at Boydstun, Tkatch signed a union authorization card last May; he said he wanted a union because he and his co-workers had gone two years without a raise. Boydstun workers have no seniority rights, no protections against abuse by management, and face many correctable workplace hazards.

In June, a slim majority of workers voted 51-45 to join the Sheet Metal Workers. Company owner Robert Boydstun challenged the eligibility of some workers to vote, and the union challenged others, and charged that company violations of labor law had called the fairness of the election into question.

When the NLRB ruled on the challenged ballots, the result was a 52-52 tie, but the agency agreed with the union that company violations of workers rights warranted a re-vote.

A second vote held in October resulted in a 68-70 loss for the Sheet Metal Workers, except that the union challenged six ballots and charged that new employer violations of workers' rights influenced the outcome.

Fear of employer retaliation has prevented all but a handful of employees from openly supporting the union. And while appeals have delayed an answer to the question of whether Boydstun workers will be able to join the union, the workers who stood up openly for the union have faced an intense company crackdown.

Three pro-union Boydstun workers were pictured in the Sept. 6 issue of the Northwest Labor Press. Of those three: Valeriy Medvedev quit when he began to face hostility from management; Valeriy Bunin was made supervisor - which prevents him from voting for the union and enables the company to legally fire him if he does anything further to support the union; and Roger Olson was made to sign a "last-chance agreement" for talking to co-workers about the union and reassigned to isolated duty in a different building.

"I look at being fired a lot like death," says Olson. "It's not a question of if, it's a question of when."

Tkatch was fired for questioning a similar reassignment and refusing to sign a document he could not understand. Tkatch came out as a union supporter by wearing a union T-shirt; he was interrogated by Boyd about whether he supported the union; he said he did. Then, on the day of the first union election, he witnessed a supervisor handing out anti-union literature, and later testified about that violation to the NLRB. From that point on, union leaders say, he was a marked man at Boydstun.

According to workers and the union, on Nov. 5, supervisor Alex Podkurov told Tkatch he was switching his job and shift. Tkatch had been in maintenance, but had been switched to operating an auto saw. Now he was being switched back to maintenance. He asked why. That, Tkatch said, brought on an angry outburst from the supervisor that lasted half an hour. He was written up for "causing a disruption in the workplace"

Then, on Nov. 25, he was asked to sign a paper full of special restrictions. He says no other employee was asked to sign such a paper. Tkatch has limited ability to speak or read English. He asked to be allowed to take the document home and read it overnight. Management refused; they called in a co-worker to translate - someone Tkatch said knows no more English than he does. Tkatch said the translator tried to help, but it was clear he didn't understand the document either. Not knowing what it was he was being asked to sign, he refused to sign it. He was fired on the spot.

When asked by the NW Labor Press to comment on Tkatch's account of the incident, Boyd didn't refute it, but referred further questions to attorney Jackie Damm of Bullard Smith Jernstedt & Harnish, who declined to comment, saying it was a confidential personnel matter.

In December, Tkatch's unemployment claim was denied; the company reportedly said he'd been fired because he refused to work Saturdays. Tkatch maintains he didn't refuse, and has worked Saturdays in the past - he says he just asked not to have to work that day - the day he takes five of his children to Friends of Christ Bible School. The unemployment investigator sided with the company. The union is helping Tkatch appeal. Organizer Willy Myers said the union is also trying to find work for Tkatch at a union shop.

In the meantime, Tkatch sold the family van to pay bills and buy food while he looks for work and waits for answers from the NLRB and the Oregon Employment Department.

January 3, 2003 issue

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