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Plant lay-offs spark controversy

Workers speak out about union, work conditions at Nikiski project

Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Matt Churchill of Nikiski thought he had a pretty good temporary job working on the BP gas-to-liquid plant construction before he went back to college. As it turned out, the job was more temporary than he had hoped.

Churchill and 11 others were laid off in early June, after about two months of employment, in what they were told was a reduction in work force as the nature of the construction changed. He said he expected to move from carpenter's helper to a pipefitter or welder's helper as the job went ahead.

Churchill believes he and the others were laid off by BP's prime contractor, Austin Industrial of Houston, because 10 of them wore pro-union stickers on their clothing at work.

"Ten of the 12 were sticker wearers," Churchill said. "That's a pretty clear correlation."

"I was reluctant at first when he started wearing the sticker," Churchill's wife, Heather, said. "The day he came home, I had a feeling and knew he was fired for the union sticker."

A unionization election will be held Friday. (See related story, this page.)

The National Labor Relations Board is in the midst of an investigation of Austin's practices at the GTL work site.

"No decision has been made on any of those," said Norm Hayashi, resident officer of the NLRB office in Anchorage. "We haven't even finished taking affidavits from the charging parties, much less the employer. We're not even close to finishing the investigation."

Cody Sarri also wore a pro-union sticker, but believes he was let go for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"My supervisor saw me in front of the union hall one night, and I was fired the next day," he said.

William Hempel, a carpenter's helper who first approached the union about organizing the job site, said he was released not long after he put on the union sticker. The same goes for C.J. Legare, a carpenter, who prefers to be called a "former employee-owner."

"That's what they told us, that the company was employee-owned, and we were the owners," he said.

Legare said he felt the two employees not wearing stickers were laid off because of their association with him and others who were pro-union.

Joe McKee, Austin Industrial's vice president of field operations, said he would not address why employees were laid off or any allegations regarding working conditions at the job site.

"I'm not going to respond to any accusations. I don't want to get into a debate in the newspaper," he said.

Legare was elected by his former co-workers to head the Kenai Worker's Committee pushing for unionization at the plant, while he was still employed there. His work with the committee is volunteer, he said; he is not paid by any union to do the work. The committee meets twice a week at the PACE (Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union) union hall in North Kenai.

Even though he is no longer an employee of Austin Industrial, he is still allowed to vote in Friday's unionization election since he was laid off in a reduction of force and is eligible for rehire. Those who quit or were terminated for cause will not be allowed to vote.

"I've been offered jobs in Anchorage, but I've said no. I want to see this through," Legare said. "I'm 47 years old, so I'm not in it for myself. There are hundreds of kids that live here who are starving to death making $7.50 an hour."

He said a union could teach them a well-paying trade they can take anywhere, rather than be low-paid laborers all their lives.

The BP gas-to-liquids pilot plant being built in Nikiski is designed to test the viability of turning natural gas into synthetic crude oil. It will have an output of 300 barrels a day. The plant could be torn down some day or expanded to a full-fledged production facility. Gas-to-liquid technology could be used on the North Slope to prepare natural gas there so it can be shipped down the trans-Alaska oil pipeline with the North Slope crude.

"This is one of the best jobs to come down in a long time, and they're trying to run a project here, I appreciate that," said Bob Buch, an organizer with the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 367 in Anchorage, one of 17 unions working with pro-union Austin employees. "We'd like to give them skilled workers for commensurate pay."

McKee is taking the unionization effort in stride.

"The election on that day will determine if the job remains the same as it is, or if we have to begin negotiating with the union," McKee said from his office in Texas Thursday.

If the workers vote union, they will have the choice to join any one of the 17 unions in the Western Alaska Building Trades Council.

"But it's not mandatory," Legare said. "We don't force anybody to join the union."

"Our philosophy is that we work a merit shop," McKee said of the nonunion system in which management decides who gets a job, raise or promotion.

"We feel that the employees are represented the best, the company represented the best and the owner we work for is represented the best with a merit shop."

Hand-in-hand with the complaint of being laid off when there is still work to be done, is the complaint that a number of people -- not counting supervisors -- have been imported from Texas to replace the laid-off Alaskans.

"And not just skilled craft people," pipe welder Mack Nowlin said. "But (they're replacing) laborers, carpenter helpers, pipefitter helpers and welder helpers."

McKee said Monday there were about 150 employees on the job, and about 18 from outside Alaska. Union organizers took an informal count and came up with 23 non-Alaskans. That's between 12 and 15 percent of the nonmanagement workers.

"It's a pretty low number, I would say," McKee said. "There are some craft shortages that we've been unable to fill completely (with local hire).

"Part of our commitment, from the beginning is to maximize our employment effort on the Kenai Peninsula, and I think we have," he said. "Our commitment is the same, we try to maximize our employment from Kenai first, Alaska second and the Lower 48 third."

McKee has not heard of any tension between Alaskans and Outsiders affecting the job.

However, what tension there is has reportedly spilled over to a graffiti war on the portable toilet walls, with each side trying its best to out-insult the other. Many of the Alaskans agreed that it is unlikely they and the Texans would go out for a drink after work.

"Is there hard feelings between Alaskans and Texans? Yes," Nowlin said.

When the job was announced, owner BP made public commitments to local hire.

"We've made it clear, very clear, to Austin our desire they work through the Job Center and to the maximum extent possible to have peninsula hire and Alaskan hire on the project," said BP spokesperson Ronnie Chappell. "I think they understand that making a good faith effort to hire in-state and Alaskans is what we expect and what they need to deliver if they expect to work for BP in the future.

"But let me say, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone seeking work based on where they live and where they come from," he added. "It is a very tight labor market, I know that."

Another complaint is what employees call the near prison-like nature of the compound. All the current and former Austin employees who met at the PACE union hall last week said if employees leave the compound before quitting time, they are not allowed back in.

"It is definitely a lock-down situation," Churchill said.

"They just don't want to let people out of their control," said Sarri.

"This is outrageous behavior," Nowlin added. "I've been in this craft for 20 years and have never seen this level of mind control."

There also were reports of squirrel feces contaminating the tables in the lunch tent and squirrels and mice gnawing their way into lunch bags and boxes.

"This is really a matter between the employees and Austin Industrial," Chappell said of some of the employees' concerns.

McKee would not comment on them.

Meanwhile, Churchill and Hempel have spent the time since they were laid off working as commercial fishing hands or on the slime line, but for people accustomed to making $15 or more an hour, those jobs weren't nearly as beneficial to their young families.

"I'm 20 years old, and I have three little children," Hempel said. "How am I supposed to take care of them?"

"In hindsight, I wish now I hadn't worn the sticker," Churchill said.

"It's been a tough time," Heather Churchill said. "The fact is, a lot of Alaskans have been wronged."

HEAD:Plant lay-offs spark controversy

HEAD:Workers speak out about union, work conditions at Nikiski project

BYLINE1:By JAY BARRETT

BYLINE2:Peninsula Clarion

Matt Churchill of Nikiski thought he had a pretty good temporary job working on the BP gas-to-liquid plant construction before he went back to college. As it turned out, the job was more temporary than he had hoped.

Churchill and 11 others were laid off in early June, after about two months of employment, in what they were told was a reduction in work force as the nature of the construction changed. He said he expected to move from carpenter's helper to a pipefitter or welder's helper as the job went ahead.

Churchill believes he and the others were laid off by BP's prime contractor, Austin Industrial of Houston, because 10 of them wore pro-union stickers on their clothing at work.

"Ten of the 12 were sticker wearers," Churchill said. "That's a pretty clear correlation."

"I was reluctant at first when he started wearing the sticker," Churchill's wife, Heather, said. "The day he came home, I had a feeling and knew he was fired for the union sticker."

A unionization election will be held Friday. (See related story, this page.)

The National Labor Relations Board is in the midst of an investigation of Austin's practices at the GTL work site.

"No decision has been made on any of those," said Norm Hayashi, resident officer of the NLRB office in Anchorage. "We haven't even finished taking affidavits from the charging parties, much less the employer. We're not even close to finishing the investigation."

Cody Sarri also wore a pro-union sticker, but believes he was let go for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"My supervisor saw me in front of the union hall one night, and I was fired the next day," he said.

William Hempel, a carpenter's helper who first approached the union about organizing the job site, said he was released not long after he put on the union sticker. The same goes for C.J. Legare, a carpenter, who prefers to be called a "former employee-owner."

"That's what they told us, that the company was employee-owned, and we were the owners," he said.

Legare said he felt the two employees not wearing stickers were laid off because of their association with him and others who were pro-union.

Joe McKee, Austin Industrial's vice president of field operations, said he would not address why employees were laid off or any allegations regarding working conditions at the job site.

"I'm not going to respond to any accusations. I don't want to get into a debate in the newspaper," he said.

Legare was elected by his former co-workers to head the Kenai Worker's Committee pushing for unionization at the plant, while he was still employed there. His work with the committee is volunteer, he said; he is not paid by any union to do the work. The committee meets twice a week at the PACE (Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union) union hall in North Kenai.

Even though he is no longer an employee of Austin Industrial, he is still allowed to vote in Friday's unionization election since he was laid off in a reduction of force and is eligible for rehire. Those who quit or were terminated for cause will not be allowed to vote.

"I've been offered jobs in Anchorage, but I've said no. I want to see this through," Legare said. "I'm 47 years old, so I'm not in it for myself. There are hundreds of kids that live here who are starving to death making $7.50 an hour."

He said a union could teach them a well-paying trade they can take anywhere, rather than be low-paid laborers all their lives.

The BP gas-to-liquids pilot plant being built in Nikiski is designed to test the viability of turning natural gas into synthetic crude oil. It will have an output of 300 barrels a day. The plant could be torn down some day or expanded to a full-fledged production facility. Gas-to-liquid technology could be used on the North Slope to prepare natural gas there so it can be shipped down the trans-Alaska oil pipeline with the North Slope crude.

"This is one of the best jobs to come down in a long time, and they're trying to run a project here, I appreciate that," said Bob Buch, an organizer with the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 367 in Anchorage, one of 17 unions working with pro-union Austin employees. "We'd like to give them skilled workers for commensurate pay."

McKee is taking the unionization effort in stride.

"The election on that day will determine if the job remains the same as it is, or if we have to begin negotiating with the union," McKee said from his office in Texas Thursday.

If the workers vote union, they will have the choice to join any one of the 17 unions in the Western Alaska Building Trades Council.

"But it's not mandatory," Legare said. "We don't force anybody to join the union."

"Our philosophy is that we work a merit shop," McKee said of the nonunion system in which management decides who gets a job, raise or promotion.

"We feel that the employees are represented the best, the company represented the best and the owner we work for is represented the best with a merit shop."

Hand-in-hand with the complaint of being laid off when there is still work to be done, is the complaint that a number of people -- not counting supervisors -- have been imported from Texas to replace the laid-off Alaskans.

"And not just skilled craft people," pipe welder Mack Nowlin said. "But (they're replacing) laborers, carpenter helpers, pipefitter helpers and welder helpers."

McKee said Monday there were about 150 employees on the job, and about 18 from outside Alaska. Union organizers took an informal count and came up with 23 non-Alaskans. That's between 12 and 15 percent of the nonmanagement workers.

"It's a pretty low number, I would say," McKee said. "There are some craft shortages that we've been unable to fill completely (with local hire).

"Part of our commitment, from the beginning is to maximize our employment effort on the Kenai Peninsula, and I think we have," he said. "Our commitment is the same, we try to maximize our employment from Kenai first, Alaska second and the Lower 48 third."

McKee has not heard of any tension between Alaskans and Outsiders affecting the job.

However, what tension there is has reportedly spilled over to a graffiti war on the portable toilet walls, with each side trying its best to out-insult the other. Many of the Alaskans agreed that it is unlikely they and the Texans would go out for a drink after work.

"Is there hard feelings between Alaskans and Texans? Yes," Nowlin said.

When the job was announced, owner BP made public commitments to local hire.

"We've made it clear, very clear, to Austin our desire they work through the Job Center and to the maximum extent possible to have peninsula hire and Alaskan hire on the project," said BP spokesperson Ronnie Chappell. "I think they understand that making a good faith effort to hire in-state and Alaskans is what we expect and what they need to deliver if they expect to work for BP in the future.

"But let me say, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone seeking work based on where they live and where they come from," he added. "It is a very tight labor market, I know that."

Another complaint is what employees call the near prison-like nature of the compound. All the current and former Austin employees who met at the PACE union hall last week said if employees leave the compound before quitting time, they are not allowed back in.

"It is definitely a lock-down situation," Churchill said.

"They just don't want to let people out of their control," said Sarri.

"This is outrageous behavior," Nowlin added. "I've been in this craft for 20 years and have never seen this level of mind control."

There also were reports of squirrel feces contaminating the tables in the lunch tent and squirrels and mice gnawing their way into lunch bags and boxes.

"This is really a matter between the employees and Austin Industrial," Chappell said of some of the employees' concerns.

McKee would not comment on them.

Meanwhile, Churchill and Hempel have spent the time since they were laid off working as commercial fishing hands or on the slime line, but for people accustomed to making $15 or more an hour, those jobs weren't nearly as beneficial to their young families.

"I'm 20 years old, and I have three little children," Hempel said. "How am I supposed to take care of them?"

"In hindsight, I wish now I hadn't worn the sticker," Churchill said.

"It's been a tough time," Heather Churchill said. "The fact is, a lot of Alaskans have been wronged."



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