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Cleanup workers consider organizing

| March 9, 2004 11:00 PM

By Brent Shrum, Western News Reporter

Spurred to action by recent wage cuts, organizers are urging local asbestos cleanup workers to unionize.

Representatives of the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Laborers International Union of North America met Thursday evening with about 15 workers who could form the core group to lead the formation of a local union.

³Even though it¹s going to take everybody, it¹s going to start with a few,² said IUOE regional director Rick Pound.

The unions offered their support to the workers after the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the Volpe Center, which handles contracts for a variety of other federal agencies, to re-evaluate the payroll for the Libby Superfund project based on federal Davis-Bacon Act wage schedules. The result was a reduction in wages for most workers from $24.29 to $29.38 an hour to $14 to $18 per hour.

The change in wages stemmed from a reclassification of most workers¹ duties from heavy construction to residential construction.

Although the EPA has since recommended an increase in wages for most workers to $19.55, the unions have asked the U.S. Department of Labor to consider that the wages paid for the cleanup of 200 homes in Libby have become the prevailing wage and should be maintained.

Laborers Union organizer Randy Siemers told the workers at last week¹s meeting that he has submitted a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act for copies of the payroll for the Libby cleanup to support the claim for the prevailing wage.

IUOE organizer Mike Jonas compared the cleanup workers¹ treatment to the actions of the vermiculite industry that made the cleanup necessary.

³The reason you¹re here in the first place is because people lied to people and cheated people and people ended up dying because of it,² he told the workers.

Unions are formed by groups of people with similar interests and similar concerns who need to stand together to protect themselves ³from power and big money,² Jonas said.

Jonas said the unions want to help in Libby but need the support of the workers. In addition to the wage issue, Jonas said he¹s heard safety concerns from workers along with stories about cleanup work not being done properly.

³These are all issues that unions can intervene in,² he said.

The cleanup companies are preying on Libby because they know it¹s a small, economically depressed community, Pound said.

³They know that you guys are going to work for whatever they¹re going to give you, and that ain¹t right,² he said.

Unions can provide training to educate workers about the hazards associated with their jobs and protect them from being fired for balking at unsafe conditions, Pound said.

³I¹ve been told, ŒYou want to go home?¹² said one worker who expressed concerns about safety.

Several workers talked about being rushed to meet the cleanup timetable and being threatened with the loss of their jobs if deadlines were not met.

³This is typical corporation stuff, whether it¹s in Libby, Montana, or whether it¹s in Seattle, where I live,² Pound said.

The employees decide if a company is union, not the management, Jonas said.

³They say, ŒWe¹re a non-union company.¹² he said. ³Did your employees say that? Because the company doesn¹t have a damned thing to say about it.²

The organizers stressed to the workers that companies cannot legally discriminate against employees for union activities.

In closing the meeting, the organizers said the workers in attendance would be considered the nucleus of a local organizing committee.

³We¹ve done a lot of work and spent a lot of funds, but at some point the people here have to step up and show us some support,² Jonas said.