Strikers at printing plant say Canadians exploit free-trade policies


For Frank Sullivan, the monthlong strike at the Lawson Mardon Label printing plant in Eastwood is an example of how Washington's free-trade policies can destroy American workers and labor unions.

"The Canadians came in here, took over the company and gutted our contract," said Mr. Sullivan, a pressman for 44 years with the plant. He and about 90 other members of Local 582 Graphic Communications International Union went on strike May 8 after seven months of sporadic negotiations failed to produce a new contract.

The strike came after the Ontario-based company refused to recognize the union's contract when it acquired the former H. S. Crocker Co. printing firm last September. Instead, Lawson Mardon recognized the union and offered to bargain a new contract.

"They could not do this in their own country, but free-trade agreements just encourage them to exploit our laws," charged Bill Beresh, Local 582's president, at a rally held outside the Baltimore County plant yesterday by members of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, AFL-CIO.

The GCIU had contracts with the Crocker company for more than four decades, the latest agreement expiring in May 1992. But the pact had no "successor clause" that specifically bound any purchaser of the company to the contract.

"They never thought it was necessary," Mr. Beresh said. "I guess we've learned again that things are not cast in concrete."

More Canadian printing firms are moving into the United States to take advantage of low wages and weaker labor laws, Mr. Beresh insisted.

Another Canadian firm took over the former Alco Gravure/Maxwell Communications plant in Glen Burnie two years ago, but did not reject the old contract, union members said.

Ernest R. Grecco, president of the Baltimore AFL-CIO, told the rally of more than 100 unionists that free-trade laws endanger jobs and living standards of U.S. workers. The new free-trade agreement with Mexico will cause even greater damage to American wages and jobs, Mr. Grecco added.

"This strike is not about economics; it's about working conditions and a fair contract," said Charles Seidel, a 21-year employee at the plant on Rolling Mill Road that prints food package labels and box wrappers. Job seniority, mandatory overtime and union jurisdiction are among the issues, he said.

Lawson Mardon also stopped pension contributions to the union fund and established its own plan, noted Corinne Ammer, who works in the shipping department.

"There's no guarantee we would ever see any of that pension money" if the company changed hands again, she said.

Albert Zimmermann, general manager of the plant, said the Canadian firm has "provided employees with excellent wages and better benefits than in the past, including a gains-sharing plan."

Wage rates and health care-coverage were not changed after the takeover by Lawson Mardon Group Ltd. Hourly wage rates range from $9 to $19 an hour, the union said.

Mr. Zimmermann said the union called the strike just when it appeared that a new contract could be reached within a short time. The company was not obligated to recognize the old contract with Crocker, he added.

Mr. Zimmermann said the plant was continuing to operate with about 30 salaried employees and more than a dozen union members who crossed the picket lines. He declined to discuss union allegations that the labor dispute stemmed from foreign ownership.

Federal mediator Donald Brodsky met with the company and union after the strike began but has been unable to promote further negotiations.

Mr. Beresh said unfair labor practice charges have been filed against Lawson Mardon with the National Labor Relations Board.

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