Almost 17 years to the day after Diane Burleson began work at the Continental Can Co. plant on Biddle Street, her boss came to her and said he had some bad news. He would have to lay her off.
Burleson was shocked. No one else at the container-making plant was being laid off. In fact, some employees were working overtime.
The only explanation her boss gave was that he had word from higher up on the corporate ladder to get rid of her.
Now Burleson knows why. When she was laid off in 1978, she was one year shy of qualifying for a generous pension and benefit plan that the United Steelworkers of America had negotiated with the company. The Steelworkers union alleges that Continental Can violated federal labor laws by laying off workers in order to deny them benefits.
Last month, Peter Kiewit Sons Inc., the former owner of Continental Can of Norwalk, Conn., agreed to a $415 million settlement. Kiewit, based in Omaha, Neb., said the violations occurred before it bought the company in 1984, and refused further comment.
Kiewit sold most of Continental Can, including two operations in Baltimore and one factory in Hurlock, to the Philadelphia-based Crown Cork & Seal Co. late last year. Those operations employ about 500 people.
The settlement, which ends an 8-year-old federal lawsuit brought by the Steelworkers, is the largest payout for a violation of federal pension laws, Steelworkers officials said.
Approximately 250 former Continental Can workers from Maryland gathered in Baltimore on Sunday to discuss distribution of the settlement. Workers who attended were about evenly split on their preference of receiving lump-sum payments or annuities over a period of time, said Dave Wilson, regional director of the Steelworkers union.
Lawyers are holding meetings with former Continental Can workers throughout the country to inform them about the vTC settlement. The gathering in Baltimore was the fifth of 15 planned meetings.
Dan McIntyre, a lawyer who filed the original lawsuit in Pittsburgh, said it is difficult to determine whether employees will get the full amount they should be entitled to receive. But he said the Steelworkers agreed to the settlement in the best interest of the former employees.
The United Steelworkers in 1983 filed a class-action lawsuit in which the union charged that Continental Can had secretly plotted to lay off workers and close plants to avoid having to pay lucrative pensions to workers who had 20 years or more service. In all, the company closed 33 plants.
During the 1970s, the union had negotiated contracts with the company that gave workers hefty benefit packages, the most expensive of which took effect when workers had 20 years' service.
The Steelworkers said the company referred to its plan to shut down operations as the "Bell" plan, which the union said it later learned was a reverse acronym meaning: "Let's limit employee benefits."
In 1989, a federal judge in New Jersey found that Continental Can had violated federal law in the late 1970s and early 1980s by developing and running a sophisticated computer program that shut down plants whenever too many workers were about to become vested in the company's pension plan.
The exact number of former workers entitled to share the settlement is not yet known, union officials said.
Although a formula for the distribution of payments has not yet been designed, McIntyre said he hopes the first payments will to be distributed by the end of the year. It is likely that subsequent payments will be made to the former workers in installments.
The settlement was good news to Burleson, who started at Continental Can when she was 23 years old operating a ditto machine. At that time, she was one of the youngest workers at the plant. Over the years she climbed the ranks from typist, to secretary, cost clerk and vacation relief worker. She said she doesn't recall exactly what she was making she was laid off but that she was one of the plant's highest paid workers at the time. "I think it was between $9 and $10 an hour," she said.
The layoff, she said, came as a shock. "You think, three more years and then if anything happens, I'll get the pension. Then they pull the rug out from under you," she said.