January 15, 2010 Volume 111 Number 2

Umatilla demilitarization workers get $3.7 million

It can really pay to be union — up to $20,000. On Dec. 17 and 18, about 300 unionized civilian workers at the U.S. Army’s Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility got checks totaling $3,685,098.98 to settle claims over missed breaks and non-payment for putting on and taking off protective gear.

Workers at the 24-hour-a-day facility disassemble munitions and incinerate chemical agents like sarin nerve gas and HD mustard gas. They are members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701 and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 112. The two unions bargain together as the Demilitarization Trades Council with their employer, federal contractor URS EG&G. The settlement was the backpay equivalent of 48 minutes of compensation for each shift worked from February 2007 to February 2009; checks averaged over $12,000.

The settlement came thanks to the vigilance of stewards, and union persistence in pursuing apparent violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Nonunion employees, including clerks, supervisors, and subcontractors, also benefited; Local 701 Assistant Business Manager Nelda Wilson said the total payout by the company was about $4.2 million. Accepting the payment meant workers waived their individual right to sue the company for unpaid wages. Local 701 was also able to negotiate paid lunch breaks going forward, which had the effect of shortening the work day to 12 hours for most members.

Wilson expressed tremendous frustration, however, with the role the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) played in the settlement. The agency is supposed to enforce the law that was allegedly violated, but Wilson said the DOL had to be cajoled into doing its job, and then proposed to let the company off the hook with a lower settlement amount.

Union complaints led to a second DOL investigation and a larger settlement. Finally, months of bureaucratic foot-dragging by the DOL delayed approval of the settlement. Union stewards got members to call and write to put pressure on the agency, Wilson said, and Local 701 even appealed to the office of U.S. Sen. Merkley for help. A call to the DOL from the senator’s office seemed to speed things up, and the workers got their due — just in time for Christmas.

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