WPSI Lockout of 1995

OCAW 1-591 History Series; Segment 6
as researched by Douglas W. Erlandson

 

Stand for Something or Work for Nothing!

On June 1st, 1995 14 OCAW Local 1-591 members lost their jobs when Texaco awarded their Coke handling bid to Western Plant Services Inc., a subsidiary of Hallbuck Marine, a vehemently anti-union company from Burnside, Louisiana.

Western Plant Services Inc. immediately began illegally discriminating against the former employees of Alpha-Omega because of their union membership. WPSI made no secret of their anti-union bias. They repeatedly announced, "we're a non-union company and we intend to stay that way." Their scheme was to hire less than a majority of the previous contractor's employees in hopes of avoiding the union shop status. The union then filed charges with the NLRB and made "Stand For Something or Work For Nothing" their strike theme. Right from the start, Texaco, expecting labor problems between OCAW and WPSI, claimed their neutrality in the dispute and stated WPSI replaced the previous contractor, Alpha-Omega, because they were the low bidders.

Even though WPSI was cutting pay by 30% and reducing benefits, OCAW International Representative Tom Lind encouraged everyone to apply for work with the new contractor hoping to save the union shop, while keeping our members working. But, as the union anticipated, Tim Erickson the new site manager and Buster Smelly (TIMEOUT: yes that's his name) the Regional Manager for WPSI, offered jobs to only 6 of the previous contractor's employees, hoping this would get rid of the union. OCAW claimed discrimination and put up a picket line.

Sadly, some OCAW members took jobs with WPSI and went to work as "working foremen". The union tried to reason with them. If they stayed out with their brothers, WPSI would be left shorthanded in the skilled positions, which might force them to recognize the union and bargain. Or Texaco might be compelled to rescind WPSI's contract if they were unable to fulfill their obligation. Yet, they crossed, some taunting as they did. The rest of WPSI's new work force was made up of scabs flown in from Louisiana. As might be expected, there were many unfriendly moments when they crossed through their former work mates' picket line.

                             

The group's Unit Chair was Les Brown. Bill Gillette was the unit's Recording Secretary. Rob Nickerson and Mardy Bragg volunteered to serve as co-picket captains. 24 hour pickets were established across Texaco's gate 6 using campers and vans as their picket headquarters.

Knowing they would need help with legal council, the union hired Schwerin, Burns, Campbell and French, a labor law firm out of Seattle who then assigned Liz Ford to the case. Discrimination charges were filed with the NLRB. After reviewing the case, the NLRB issued a scathing review of WPSI and scheduled the case to be heard by an administrative law judge. The bitter confrontation between the two parties began escalating.

Because the group was small, the local was able to set picket pay at $100 a week. And because they were now unemployed due to illegal discrimination, they all qualified for and received full unemployment benefits from the State of Washington. If one did the math, the scabs were crossing for chump change.

On June 6th, OCAW 1-591 picketers Larry White and Unit Chair Les Brown picketed the train headed to Texaco's Delayed Coking unit to haul petroleum coke. Burlington Northern Railroad conductor, Don Kirkwood, refusing to cross through OCAW's picket line, stopped the train. Texaco called county Sheriff Ed Goodman, hoping to get the train rolling again. Because Les and Larry were on public property, there was nothing the Sheriff's department could do, so the picketing continued. With the help of the other unit members, picketing stopped the train for a 24 hour period. Obviously this event made front page news with the local newspapers. Only after a plea from the plant manager of Tecnal, (another March Point company) did OCAW agree to take down the pickets. OCAW had made it's point. They weren't going to go away easy.

Because of tight time constraints, the union knew WPSI couldn't have properly trained their employees as required by Process Safety Management laws. The union warned the surrounding, nearby community they could be in danger because Texaco had allowed unqualified and untrained people on site to perform the potentially hazardous job of drilling, cutting and handling petroleum coke. The union then formally filed their safety concerns with the State Attorney General's office and with the Department of Labor and Industries. After three separate investigations, the Dept. of L&I found 27 violations and levied $23,340 in fines against Texaco, Hallbuck Marine and WPSI. Texaco was fined $7,740 with WPSI and HBM being fined $15,600 each. The Attorney General's office categorized the violations as "serious" which indicates substantial probability existed that death or serious harm could result from using the untrained, replacement work force. As expected, all companies filed appeals.

Support started to come in almost immediately from others unions and civilians. Early financial support came from IBEW 77, IBEW 191, UFCW 44 and the Central Labor Council. OCAW International sent a $5000 contribution from their "Emergency Fund" and agreed to pay half of the local's legal bills.

Because labor disputes are costly, each unit group of the local took a secret ballot vote to assess themselves an extra hours pay, per month, for 8 months to help the Local's Defense Fund remain intact. Each unit group passed the strike dues assessment vote except the Shell unit. A number of Shell members were upset that the union hall had recently been remodeled and the project had been financed with a loan from the Local's Defense Fund. The Shell group then held another vote, proposing to assess their dues an extra $5 a month. Ashamedly, this too failed. This didn't go well with the other unit group's who did vote to assess themselves. Local leaders wondered how they could ask other unions for help, when some of their own brothers wouldn't.

On May 4th, Local 1-591 took out an ad in the Seattle PI as well as the Skagit Valley Herald detailing to the public, Texaco's "take it or leave it" bargaining stance. The full page ad explained the union's "take-away" concerns and then asked the public for their help, hoping to convince Texaco to bargain in good faith. Its effectiveness was unclear.

Although there was a picket line in place across gate 7 during load outs, the Teamster's Union, Local 231 out of Bellingham drove through. Their Business Representative, Chuck Eggert wanted his drivers to drive through irrespective of the picket line. He claimed if they honored the line, Texaco would transfer the hauling job to a non-union trucking outfit and losing their jobs would do nothing to assist the efforts of OCAW. The Teamster's then asked if they could help in some other way. Because labor disputes get expensive, OCAW suggested they could send financial help. None was ever received, not even during the Christmas Adopt-A-Family drive. Occasionally some of the drivers made an out-of-pocket donation but nothing official from Eggert's organization.

By now WPSI was able to hire enough local people to fill their work force needs, so they flew the imported scabs from Louisiana home. But because of the poor work environment and the low pay, their work force was constantly revolving. A new scab a week it seemed.

To keep the fight in the public eye and help keep the membership's morale up, a rally was planned. The event was organized and directed by the social activist group, "Jobs With Justice".

On July 22nd, the event was held. Virtually every union and social activist group in western Washington was in attendance. Live folk music was provided as the throng assembled outside OCAW's local union hall at 902 5th street. Local Executive Board member Tom Montgomery emceed the event. Several speakers addressed the crowd. Robbie Stern of the Washington State Labor Council was the featured starting point speaker.

The 350+ group then marched up the west sidewalk of Commercial Avenue, carrying hundreds of hand made signs decrying the injustice caused by Hallbuck Marine, WPSI and Texaco. The boisterous marchers continued up Commercial Avenue stretching out over three city blocks. The route then turned at 32nd street, down on to "R" Avenue and ended at the city park on 23rd & "R". There, keynote speaker Dean Alexander, Assistant to the International President, addressed the crowd. At the end of his address he presented OCAW 1-591 with another $5000 check from the International's "Emergency Fund." A collection was taken up for the strikers as well. By all accounts, the event was a total success.

After being locked-out for 4 months, the group qualified to use the International's Adopt-A-Family program. Financial Secretary Erlandson solicited the OCAW locals of District 1 as well as contacting many union's throughout Washington State. Past President Jim Bergeson flew at his own expense to an out of state District 1 Council meeting to help encourage contributions. The response to his presentation was well received.

Because the former Alpha-Omega brothers were the only OCAW members, nationwide, involved in a labor dispute, they received all contributions to the International's Adopt-A-Family program. Over $29,000 was received over the course of the lock-out due to contributions and donations from many, many unions all across America. OCAW 1-5 generously pledged $500 monthly to the support of Tom Handy who had lost his unemployment benefits because of health problems. Heart felt, hand written "thank you" letters were sent to the contributing unions from the receiving families. This program epitomizes the spirit of unionism.

In Burlington, Washington the discrimination case was heard before Administrative Law Judge William Schmidt. Both the NLRB and the Union were seeking justice against WPSI. Dan Sanders represented the NLRB and Liz Ford represented OCAW. Lester Smith was the council for the defendant, WPSI. Judge Schmidt heard two days of compelling testimony from the charging parties. The union left the hearing feeling very confident. All three attorneys informed the court they would file written briefs. Lester Smith didn't have much of a case and his brief showed it. The brief submitted by Sanders on behalf of the NLRB was well done and made many strong points. Liz Ford's brief was nothing short of awesome! She methodically, point after point, proved the union's case. She buried WPSI with it.

Even though there was very little extra curricular activity at the picket line, WPSI took the union to County court seeking an injunction. At the time, the scabs passing through were being held up only briefly, but after the Judge heard the case, that changed! He ruled the picketers could "only" stop the cars passing through for one minute. The net effect was a step backward for WPSI. And with picketing the gate 7 traffic for one minute each way, the load out time was substantially increased. The OCAW guys then put up a tongue-in-cheek scoreboard, OCAW "3"- WPSI "0". Over the course of the dispute, the scoreboard was updated as the union continued to win on various issues. Last I saw it the score was 85 to 1 in favor of OCAW. (Although some argue their 1 point was a gift).

Since the 1980's, during the Christmas holiday season, Texaco and OCAW would put aside any differences they may have had between themselves and would jointly work together on an Adopt-A-Family project helping the less fortunate children and families have a nicer Christmas. This year with our own members in need and since Texaco was not involved, the union proposed the Alpha-Omega group be adopted. Texaco graciously declined. For the first time in many years, the joint Adopt-A-Family project was carried out separately.

The union then launched an aggressive fund raising campaign, taking up collections at every opportunity. Many letters were written to other unions explaining the situation, asking for contributions. And the response was way over what anyone could have dreamt. Including gifts, toys and cash, more than $5000 was raised. One anonymous donor gave an extremely generous cash donation of $1000! Texaco member Pat Curly bought turkeys for every family. With money in hand, a team of shoppers went out shopping and gift wrapping. Charlie Messer then became Santa Claus, wearing the Santa outfit made by Donna Erlandson. Tom Montgomery served as Santa's #1 Elf. Using Tom's '65 Mustang with the convertible top down, they home delivered Santa's payload to the locked-out families.

On May 10th 1996, Judge Schmidt issued his ruling. He agreed with the union stating WPSI had engaged in certain unfair labor practices. His award ordered WPSI to retroactively restore the preexisting terms and conditions of employment, including wage rates, hours of work, holidays, vacations, health and welfare coverage and pensions, with back wages plus 12% interest. They were also responsible for all medical bills incurred during the lock-out. Judge Schmidt specifically noted he "discounted the great bulk of Tim Erickson's testimony because it conflicted with the truth." Schmidt noted he "found Erickson's demeanor as a witness utterly unconvincing."

After Judge Schmidt's ruling, the NLRB filed for a 10j injunction on the union's behalf before Administrative Law Judge John Coughenour. If WPSI was going to appeal, the NLRB wanted the union members back working while the appeal process took its course. After hearing testimony and reviewing the case, he ruled there was sufficient evidence supporting the NLRB's complaint. Judge Coughenor noted the union was likely to succeed on the merits of their case and ordered WPSI to offer employment within 5 days, with the same terms and conditions that existed under the previous contractor as was ordered by Judge Schmidt. On June 18th, 1996 the locked-out work force was back to work. WPSI never appealed Judge Schmidt's ruling.

Due to Judge Coughenor's favorable 10j injunctive ruling, the entire crew, minus Bill Gillette who had recently quit, was back to work again. This caused WPSI to layoff most of the scab workers they had hired. The ones that remained, received an immediate pay raise because of the union contract that was now back in force.

At their yearly constitutional convention, the Washington State Labor Council presented OCAW 1-591 with their most prestigious honor, "The 1996 Mother Jones Award." WSLC President Rick Bender noted the locked-out members were an inspiration to union members everywhere. On hand to receive the award for OCAW was Unit Chair Les Brown, Local President George Welch and Vice-President Kim Nibarger.

Representative Lind now had the job of negotiating a new contract with WPSI. As long as negotiations remained uncompleted, the terms of the existing contract remained in place. Lester Smith, WPSI's attorney, had a hard time getting Lind to the bargaining table. Tom was busy with the other Local's he represented and, what with other out of state plans, there just wasn't enough time.

Eventually WPSI pinned Lind down and WPSI did what everyone knew they would do. They purposely made poor, unacceptable offers designed for rejection hoping to force an impasse so they could implement their "last, best, final offer." This meant working for $9 an hour. Then WPSI's ever genius manager Tim Erickson wrote in the daily order book he was setting everyone's pay at $10 an hour. What Erickson didn't realize was this helped the union because it proved their $9 offer was not their "last, best, final offer." The union then filed still another board complaint, charging WPSI with bargaining in bad faith. The union prevailed on this point as well. WPSI was ordered to reinstate the original court ordered wage rates and make up the back pay difference retroactively.

At talks between representatives for WPSI and OCAW, a two year contract was finally agreed to as well as reaching a compromised, reduced settlement on the financial awards that were due the union and all other hourly employees of WPSI. The negotiated settlement totaled nearly $500,000. On September 25th 1997, the long awaited settlement checks arrived ending OCAW 1-591's longest labor dispute. The fight for justice was expensive, costing the OCAW International and Local 1-591 more than $200,000 collectively.