Some might consider the ceremonial burying of the hatchet at Lehigh Portland Cement Co.'s Union Bridge plant a week ago a bit contrived. However, if the plant's management and employees can turn a symbolic act into one of substance and meaning, Carroll County residents may witness a complete turnabout in Lehigh's past decade of nasty labor relations.
Last Monday's mock funeral is actually in keeping with an international growth in ritual "meaculpas." In early April, 800 German Christians traveled to the Netherlands and apologized for the World War II invasion. Last month, Pope John Paul II apologized in the Czech Republic for the Catholic and Protestant wars that wracked Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its support of slavery. Japan may yet apologize for its attack on Pearl Harbor.
While Lehigh's conflicts have not resulted in such carnage, there has been a deep and bitter split between the plant's management and workers since a nearly month-long strike back in 1984. Unionized employees did not get raises for a decade. Lehigh's insensitivity to environmental and safety issues exacerbated the ill will in the community. On occasion, the plant, which employs nearly 200, used waste oil that had been contaminated with toxic materials. Lehigh also had several incidents where workers were overcome by fumes and required emergency medical assistance.
Frustrated by the lack of progress on the contract and deteriorating working conditions, employees picketed plant manager David H. Roush's house. A year ago, it would have been difficult to find a Maryland plant with a worse working environment.
Lehigh's management and union leadership deserve credit for deciding that there was no reason to continue such poisonous relations. Even though the Union Bridge plant was among Lehigh's most productive, manufacturing more than a million tons of cement annually, better labor relations could result in greater efficiency and better working conditions. Management and labor have decided to focus on areas where they agree. Both sides have promised to improve communications and to try solve their mutual problems. Considering the length of the dispute and depth of the bitterness, they have accepted a formidable challenge.