3/12/08

USW members use secret-ballot against union

Today's secret ballot vote at the MeadWestvaco paper mill in Covington (VA) will offer union workers three options. The choices are: retaining the United Steelworkers International union as Local 8-675's bargaining representative; choosing representation by the new Covington Paperworkers Union Local 675; or rejecting both -- which would be a vote for no union representation, an outcome that seems unlikely.

The National Labor Relations Board will oversee the voting, which will occur inside the mill throughout the day. Because ballots will be received until 11:45 p.m., vote results will not be available until early Thursday.

More than 970 workers at the plant have been USW members. In October, voicing frustration about stalled contract talks with MeadWestvaco and alleging that negotiators from the international had failed to adequately represent them, a group split away and formed CPU.

USW International President Leo Gerard has acknowledged that the international made some mistakes during negotiations.

But he and other USW officials emphasize that the union workers at the mill will be best served by the international's continued representation, national clout and diverse resources.

About 1,400 people work at the paper mill and other MeadWestvaco facilities nearby. The company is the largest taxpayer and employer for Covington and Alleghany County. The sprawling plant's operations also support businesses in the larger region, including many small, independent operators who supply pulpwood.

Both the USW and CPU predicted Tuesday that they will prevail.

A USW news release suggested loyalty to its camp remains among "a large majority" of union members.

Roy Hall, CPU president, predicted the new local will win.

"We're feeling very optimistic," Hall said. "We all have the feeling we'll win decisively."

Becky Johnson, a MeadWestvaco spokeswoman in Covington, said the company has not taken sides and will not.

She said MeadWestvaco does not anticipate problems at the mill between the factions after vote results are in.

"Everyone has worked together really well so far," Johnson said. "We have no reason to believe it will be any different."

Union members have been working under the terms of a contract that expired in December 2006. USW Local 8-675 has continued as the local bargaining unit, but contract talks broke down months ago.

During previous negotiations between the union and MeadWestvaco, sticking points have included health care coverage, pension contributions and a company proposal to make boundaries among maintenance trades more porous.

Mike Yoffee, an organizing director for USW International, has been in Covington since November, he said.

He agreed that the international has spent a lot of time, money and effort in its campaign to keep the Covington union members in the USW fold.

Why?

"Because if the bargaining and the negotiations become a disaster, it's going to ruin a thousand people's lives and the lives of their families," said Yoffee, referring to union members at the paper mill.

But he acknowledged also that the international is concerned about how the breakup in Covington could influence other USW locals around the country.

"We don't want to be running around trying to do this all the time," he said. "It's painful to see this kind of problem."

Hall said the USW International's concerted efforts suggest it fears "the larger implications of us being successful for workers."

(roanoke.com)

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