Union charges intimidation before vote, ponders appeal

Posted: Tuesday, August 07, 2001

In the aftermath of Friday's unionization election at the BP gas-to-liquid job site in Nikiski, union organizers are considering an appeal of its 51-40 defeat. Company officials meanwhile are happy the vote turned down the union and have set their sights on finishing the job.

"We're obviously pleased the vote went like it did," said Austin Industrial Vice President Joe McKee from his car phone in Houston Monday.

"We're going to continue our support for the local community as we have already and continue to hire locally, except in areas we cannot find people we need."

Local hire and unfair termination were key issues in the unionization effort. Employees past and present alleged Austin -- BP's prime contractor constructing the experimental GTL plant -- fired employees for being pro-union and replaced them with outside hire.

Cody Sarri of Nikiski is one of Austin's former employees who believe he was let go because of his pro-union stance. Since he was laid off in a reduction of force and not fired for just cause, he was allowed to vote in Friday's election.

"The only reason I was doing it was to give the other guys a chance to have a choice," he said.

Sarri's termination is one of the unfair labor practice charges against Austin that are before the National Labor Relations Board.

Though 99 people cast votes, eight were questioned ballots. There were 112 employees eligible to vote.

While there are no local hire laws, and it is illegal to discriminate against a job applicant based on state of residence, Austin and BP made strong commitments to Kenai Peninsula and Alaska hire on the job. Estimates of employees at the construction site that are from out of state range from 18, according to McKee, to 23, according to union organizers, which is 15 percent or less of the nonmanagement work force.

"We're trying our best to be a contributor to the local community. I feel real good that we've done that," McKee said.

He said the company has made donations to local organizations through the Nikiski Chamber of Commerce.

"We've made some significant charitable donations, in fact," he said. "We feel we've honored our commitment to the community."

McKee, as he's done before, declined to comment specifically about employee allegations or the charges pending against the company with the NLRB.

"It would serve no purpose for me to comment," he said. "There will be a time and a place where all issues will be resolved, just as the unionization vote has."

Norm Hayashi, the resident officer with the NLRB in Anchorage, said Monday the interviews surrounding his investigation are continuing, and most likely will take "another month or two."

Bob Buch, an organizer with the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 367, said he is confident the NLRB will find in favor of the laid off workers and they will receive their back pay.

"I'm very sorry to see people lose their jobs, but they will get reimbursed," he said. "The whole idea of unfair labor practices is to make the company pay for that."

"I'm still hoping to get that," Sarri said. "I still think they wronged us."

Meanwhile, Buch and other organizers with the Western Alaska Building Trades Council are trying to decide whether an appeal of the election will be made.

"We have a long list of issues to be raised that this company did that was against the law," Buch said. "Considering what the final days of this camp was like before the election, there was no possible way we could win this election."

Buch alleged employees were singled out, threatened and intimidated.

"On the job, there was an atmosphere of complete oppression, suppression and intimidation," Buch said. "Those people were scared to death for their jobs."

He said the appeal of the election, if there is one, will be based on those allegations. A decision to appeal may be made today, though the unions have until Friday to decide.

The BP GTL pilot plant being built next to the Tesoro refinery 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 to be shipped down the trans-Alaska oil pipeline with the North Slope crude. If turned into a full-size operation, it could provide feed stock for Tesoro to make up for dwindling Cook Inlet crude.

The plant is scheduled for completion in early 2002.

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