'Never in 43 years of union membership ...'

Passions flared Sunday afternoon as two unions tussled for the loyalty of employees at the giant MeadWestvaco paper manufacturing operations here.

More than a hundred supporters of a new organization, Covington Paperworkers Union Local 675, picketed an appearance by United Steelworks President Leo Gerard at Covington High School. The two labor organizations have been at loggerheads since union members at the Covington mill voted to sever ties with the Steelworkers in October in favor of creating their own local.

When Gerard approached one group of pickets before Sunday's meeting, he was shouted down with taunts of "Go home" and "Where were you last year?"

Later, an admittedly irritated Gerard told a similar-sized audience inside that "never in 43 years of union membership have I seen other workers intimidate their colleagues from attending a union meeting."

Tony Markland, one of the new union's vice presidents, denied there was intimidation. "We are very passionate about our cause, but we've not told people not go to the meeting. In fact, we've encouraged them to go to hear what he has to say."

But, he noted, "picket lines are a tradition of unionism."

In a statement released through his organization's lawyer, Markland and fellow vice president Rick Gibson accused the 800,000-member Steelworkers union of having "showered Covington with propaganda designed to mislead and intimidate our members and their families into backing down."

The new union has been trying to force an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board to determine who will represent the workers.

"We just want a vote," said Doug Persinger, one of the pickets supporting the new union. "Let democracy work. We're willing to live with however it turns out."

He and the others on the line were confident such a vote will sustain last fall's disaffiliation decision, which passed by a 483-17 vote, they said.

The Covington mill has about 960 union employees in all.

The Steelworkers have stymied all attempts to have the NLRB conduct an election, even though a majority of employees at MeadWestvaco have signed up with the new union, its lawyer, John Fishwick, said Sunday.

Inside the school, Gerard acknowledged that the Steelworkers brought charges against the new union to the national labor board, later withdrew some, then reinstituted some others.

"I have an obligation to represent even one or two or three or five or 10 members who believe their rights were violated" by the disaffiliation vote, he said. "I won't decide not to represent them just because people are yelling at me."

Both Gerard and representatives of the new union leveled similar charges at each other -- of intimidating union members and their families, of campaigns of intentional misinformation and of simple misunderstandings.

Both sides were more reticent to talk about specific grievances, which appear to have included such concerns as health care benefits and the length of collective bargaining agreements.

The paperworkers have been working under the provisions of a contract that expired in December 2006, and many expressed frustration over the lack of a new agreement.

Gerard did not apologize for his union's position on those issues or the lack of a contract, although he tried to explain them. But he did acknowledge that the union "had made some mistakes" in its interactions with the Covington local.

He said the death more than a year ago of a key union official who dealt with the paperworkers led to a series of personnel missteps and communication lapses. Those have been corrected, he insisted, and the union simply wants to talk through whatever remaining issues "have created this level of mistrust."

Employees picketing outside said they wanted no more explanations, only a chance to exercise the right Gerard said he also supported -- to cast a ballot for their representatives.

Although Gerard and other Steelworkers staffers insisted that the paperworkers need to be part of a union with national clout to take on the threats of international competition, Markland insisted that the local members have always done their own bargaining with MeadWestvaco anyway.

He and others said they had no misgivings about the power of local workers to continue doing that.

"All we want is a vote. That's all we've asked for since October," said Tim Sparks, a 32-year employee of the plant.


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