Vote at Peak not even close

Workers say 'no' to union

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

The vote was overwhelmingly against unionizing Peak Oilfield Service Co. when the ballots were counted Thursday.

The National Labor Relations Board said 421 employees -- 70 percent of the total -- voted against unionizing.

"I think Peak is a good company, and we treat our employees fairly, and they realize they can come to us with their concerns and we react fairly, and they don't need a union to represent them," said Bruce Passe, Peak's Cook Inlet area manager.

Some 125 employees, 21 percent of the total, voted to unionize under the Operating Engineers Local 302 and the Laborers International Union of North America. Just 52, roughly 9 percent, voted to unionize under the Teamsters Union Local 959.

"We're all pretty excited here that it went that way," said Debbie Goodwin, who helped organize the Neither/No Committee to fight unionization. "I think that people are just happy with the company they work for and don't see a need to go union at this time. They're happy with their jobs, the company treats them good and fairly. Why fix something if it's not broke?"

Goodwin, an administrative assistant, would not have been part of the collective bargaining unit.

Jeff Ackerman, an organizer for the Operating Engineers, said the Neither/No Committee ran a strong campaign. He cited its newspaper advertisements, particularly one that began, "The Operating Engineers have sent literature to our homes which promises Peak employees an additional $13.45 an hour in wages and benefits."

That would raise Peak's costs by 40 to 64 percent, the ad said, and Peak would have to pass the increase to its clients.

"Agrium will be the first contract we lose," the ad said. "Then it will be Phillips, Cross Timbers and Unocal! Our work will go to nonunion contractors!"

Another ad pictured the tombstones of Kodiak Oilfield Haulers and Mukluck, union companies that went out of business. Ackerman said Nabors Alaska Drilling, which owns 51 percent of Peak, also owned a controlling interest in Kodiak Oilfield Haulers.

"During the 1980s, they formed a nonunion company -- Peak -- and gave all of Kodiak's work to Peak," he said.

Ackerman said Peak President Mike O'Connor threatened to form another nonunion company if Peak workers unionized.

"Most people, union or nonunion, have a house mortgage, car payments and kids. The threat of losing a job is pretty overpowering for them," he said. "In a union organizing drive, if an employer makes those threats, real or implied, it's enough to deter them from voting for the union."

He accused Peak of financing the Neither/No campaign.

He said he could file unfair labor practices charges, though he will not.

"In all honesty, it would be easier to talk to the employees and see if they'd go with us next year," he said. "Each 366 days, you can have an election. I'm more interested in waiting until fall, and seeing if the employees are interested. A lot of times, you win the second election."

O'Connor did not return calls Friday.

Passe categorically denied that Peak financed the Neither/No campaign. While some local companies contributed to the committee, he said, most of its money came from Peak employees.

Passe said Nabors owns just 50 percent of Peak.

He said he was unfamiliar with Kodiak Oilfield Haulers, but if Nabors formed a nonunion subsidiary to take the union company's work, that just proves his point.

"There's no way a union company can compete with a nonunion company," he said.

During the campaign, Ackerman said, the unionization effort was spurred by employees who are dissatisfied with health and retirement benefits. While Peak has a generous 401K plan, he said, that is not as good as a bona fide retirement plan. Under a union-negotiated contract, he said, companies could pay around $4 an hour into the union retirement program and another $2 an hour toward health care. Union organizers said Nabors agreed to an interim 8 percent wage hike for most employees shortly after workers unionized in October.

Blake Johnson, business manager for the Laborers union and president of the Kenai Peninsula Central Labor Council, said the biggest issue was that pension plans generally pay for the rest of a worker's life, while a 401K plan may run out of money.

Passe said the 401K plan is better. Employees can contribute up to 16 percent of their wages, he said, and Peak will match 40 percent of their contributions. Employees have a wide range of 401K investment options.

"We have complete control of where we put that money," he said. "In the unions, you have no control over where they put that money, and history has proven that unions squander that money."

Passe said Peak pays as well or better than other contractors, but the industry is highly competitive.

"If we were to raise our wages even 5 percent, we'd be out of the ball park in the competitive bidding process," he said.

The Western Alaska Building and Construction Trades Council petitioned the labor relations board last month for an election to unionize Austin Industrial crafts workers building BP's experimental gas-to-liquids plant in Nikiski.

Passe said Austin Industrial, which arrived last winter and hired local workers, is different from Peak, which has had years to build good employee relations. But the Peak vote sends a message, he said.

"It definitely is a statement by the workers in general to the unions, especially with the margin by which they were defeated," he said.

It will be bad for Alaska if workers unionize at Austin Industrial, he said.

"I think we'd see a whole bunch more out-of-state workers up here, because the unions draw from their unions, and they're international unions. They go all through the country."

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