Lehigh employees, management agree to work past disputes


Workers and managers at Lehigh Portland Cement Co. pledged yesterday to put past disputes behind them as they strive to create a safer and more productive workplace.

As a symbol of their renewed partnership, they buried a hatchet and erected a grave marker in the front lawn at the Union Bridge plant. The white marker reads, "RIP 1984" -- the year in which workers at the cement plant went on strike for 3 1/2 weeks.

"We're still going to have disputes, but at least we're talking," Ernest R. Grecco, president of the Baltimore AFL-CIO, said at a news conference at the plant. About 30 people, many of them plant workers, attended the news conference.

"This is a turnaround or change in our approach or attitude," said plant manager David H. Roush. "We've spent years and years focusing on the things we don't agree on. The change is, we're now going to focus on what we can agree on."

Lehigh management and members of Local 10031 of the United Paperworkers International Union have formed "The Bridge," a joint committee to help improve relations.

"Communication has always been one of the biggest problems here at Union Bridge," said Bonnie S. Biggus, the local president.

Employees often were not told why management made certain decisions, she said.

The Bridge partnership "is based on the belief that two parties can work together to achieve customer satisfaction," said Ms. Biggus, a plant employee for 19 years.

Union leaders proposed in February the partnership in which workers and managers strive for "total quality," a buzzword meaning that they work to produce the best product they can through joint decision making and improved training.

Lehigh, based in Allentown, Pa., was in the process of phasing in a similar program at its eight other U.S. plants and agreed to the union's proposal, said Mr. Roush, the plant's manager for 10 years.

Labor-management relations at the Union Bridge plant had deteriorated during contract negotiations in 1983.

At the same time, the workers were in turmoil with their union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. In 1991, they voted to join the Paperworkers.

They worked for three years -- until September 1994 -- without a contract. The pact signed last year included salary increases, which most workers at the Union Bridge plant had not received in 10 years.

Despite the disputes, the plant's 200 employees continued to produce about 1 million tons of cement per year, which made the Union Bridge plant Lehigh's most productive. The plant operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Jonathan F. Wolfel, the United Paperworkers district representative, said the committee might tackle issues not covered in the contract. Contract issues such as salaries, holidays, vacation days and pensions could not be discussed.

The committee could study a profit-sharing plan for employees and could find ways to eliminate the need for outside contractors during the plant's routine maintenance shutdowns, he said.

"The biggest thing we want out of this is communication. They've got to talk to us. It's really a commitment to work together," Mr. Wolfel said.

Ms. Biggus said employees want input into decisions about environmental and safety issues, such as the burning of alternative fuels in cement kilns.

As Lehigh continues to look for cheaper fuels than coal, the workers worry about toxic fumes and other health hazards. Lehigh now burns used tires as fuel and has burned waste oils.

The Maryland Alliance for Labor-Management Cooperation is guiding the union and Lehigh in their efforts to improve relations and working conditions. The nonprofit group works to attract and retain jobs in the state, and provides training to improve labor-management relations.

"What we're doing here is something new and different," said Jeff Griffith, a former Carroll County commissioner, who is a vice president and general counsel of the alliance. "It has its own danger. We move forward with hope."

Not all Lehigh employees are convinced that the partnership will help them.

"Guarded skepticism, that's the watchword," said committee member Lee Green, an electrician at the plant for six years.

"The general opinion is [that] lots of people have a laid-back, wait-and-see attitude," said Robert Parrish, a committee member and maintenance worker for 22 years.

David Arnold, the local's vice president and a shift repairman at Lehigh for 15 years, said about 10 percent of the plant's employees are not behind the partnership.

"That strike started a spiral," he said. "[Relations] just spiraled down further and further. We want to break that spiral."

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