Lehigh Portland Cement Co. and union officials have started negotiating a new contract for employees, but they're keeping the details quiet.

The group met Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at an inn here to begin talks on a contract for about 150 production and maintenance workers at the Union Bridge plant.

James E. Harris, a union leader at the plant who is involved in negotiations, said both sides agreed not to discuss the talks with thepress.

Workers have been without a contract since April 30.

InJune, they voted overwhelmingly to be represented by a new union -- the United Paperworkers International Union, based in Nashville, Tenn.

Workers had been dissatisfied with the International Brotherhoodof Boilermakers, which had represented them since 1984, the year employees went on strike for 3 1/2 weeks.

The vote on June 20 among production and maintenance workers, who make up the majority of workers at the plant, was 146 for the Paperworkers, 0 for the Boilermakers and 3 for neither.

Jonathan F. Wolfel, a Paperworkers representative involved in the bargaining, said the parties agreed to talk about the negotiations only in jointly released press statements or if theyreached an agreement or talks broke down.

Last week was just a beginning, he said, adding that it was "too early to tell" how talks were going.

Representatives from four other Lehigh plants are also involved in negotiations. Workers in York, Pa.; Mitchell, Ind.; and Mason City, Iowa, also voted last spring to be represented by the Paperworkers. Employees at the Leeds, Ala., plant voted to be independent of a union but are involved in negotiations, Wolfel said last month.

Negotiators will resume talks at another location soon, he said.

In mid-August, Lehigh officials and employee representatives touredPaperworkers headquarters in Nashville to meet the staff and discussbargaining formats, Wolfel said.

Hugh Earls, director of labor and employee relations for Lehigh at its headquarters in Allentown, Pa., could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The Union Bridge plant employs about 200 workers, about 30 of whom are management. In the June election, 17 clerical and laboratory workers who had been union members voted to no longer be represented by a union.

After the election, some production and maintenance workers said they hoped to bargain for pay raises, the return of certain seniority rights and increases in their pension and other benefits.

Workers at the plant, which produces 1 million tons of cement a year, have not had a raise in six years, they said.

"We hope to get back to a fair and just contract," Skip Buffington of New Windsor, a 25-year employee, said in June.

Plant manager David H. Roush said then that the two parties would begin negotiating a new contract "from a blank piece of paper."

Union Bridge is Lehigh's most productive plant. Lehigh, the country's sixth-largest cement company, has nine plants in seven states.

The Paperworkers have 240,000 members in the United States and abroad.

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