Workers say layoffs at Nikiski project prompted by union sentiments

Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2001

KENAI (AP) -- 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.

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 labor board's 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.

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.''

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