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May 14, 2003, 6:33AM

Dow Chemical Co. workers may walk out today

Seniority rules, sympathy strikes are main issues in Freeport

By L.M. SIXEL

About 1,000 employees at Dow Chemical Co. in Freeport are expected to walk off their jobs at 4 p.m. today if they reject a contract offer from the company.

Employees at Dow's largest plant are upset about the company's proposal to do away with seniority rules and sympathy strikes, and notified Dow officials early Monday morning about their intention to strike when their contract expires.

The eight-year contract also calls for a wage freeze for 2003, which mirrors the wage freeze affecting everyone who works at Dow from the CEO on down.

Raises for the remaining seven years of the contract were not spelled out and will be based on several factors, including the cost of living, what the competition is paying and the raises given to nonunion Dow employees.

But money is not the issue, said Charlie Singletary, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 564 in Lake Jackson.

Like most union contracts, the Dow contract calls for job assignments to be made based on length of service, with those having the most years given first choice.

But Dow wants to be able to choose which employees it wants for which jobs, Singletary said.

"If they like you, you'll get a job," he said.

The company would also prohibit the operating engineers from honoring the picket line of the other union-represented employees at the plant. Besides the operating engineers, plant employees are represented by the pipefitters, machinists and boilermakers.

If a union can't participate in sympathy strikes, a company can pick unions off one by one, said Singletary, who added that he expected his members to vote to reject the contract offer Tuesday and go on strike today.

The company does not believe it's appropriate that when the majority of the members of one union vote to strike, the entire plant should participate in the work stoppage, said Jan Huisman, public affairs leader for Dow Chemical in Texas.

As for seniority, Dow would also like to consider other factors such as skills, ability, performance, experience and individual interests when making a job assignment, said Huisman, whose office is in Freeport. Those additional factors are considered for job transfers within a department, which affect about half of all operator job changes.

By relaxing the seniority rules, the company could get the "right person in the right job," he said. In the case of layoffs, however, seniority would still be the only factor.

He said that Dow has prepared for the possibility of a strike by training nonunion employees and managers for several months.

The last time Dow employees struck was in 1972, when they went out for three months during a dispute over the use of contract workers. The dispute ended when the union won some job protections.

 

 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  May 20, 2003, 11:38PM

Possible seniority loss causes workers to walk

Dow Chemical union expecting a long strike

By L.M. SIXEL

FREEPORT -- Managers and nonunion workers took over operation of the Dow Chemical Co. plant here Tuesday as representatives of workers who walked off the job a day earlier said they were expecting a long strike.

Late Monday, operators voted 463-409 to strike after union leaders and company officials failed to reach agreement on a contract offer that would have eliminated the long-standing system of seniority to determine job assignments at Dow's largest chemical plant. The company wants to select the employees for jobs based on skills, interest and performance.

About 200 machinists and pipefitters who also work at Dow walked out in sympathy with the operators. Boilermakers, however, cannot strike because their contract does not permit a so-called "sympathy" walkout.

The operators had rejected an earlier contract last week, but the company and union quickly resumed bargaining.

Little, however, was changed in the new offer, said Charlie Singletary, business manager of the International Union of Operations Engineers Local 564 in Lake Jackson.

The company agreed it wouldn't be "arbitrary and capricious" when selecting employees for jobs, but Singletary said the union members still couldn't go along with it. The last strike was in 1972, when employees walked out for three months over the use of contract employees.

The International Union of Operating Engineers recommended that its members accept the newest contract offer, while local union leaders like Singletary remained neutral.

Singletary, who said he knows how angry members are about the seniority proposal and to a lesser extent a limit on sympathy strikes, wasn't surprised at the vote total.

"This is what a union is all about," he said as he fielded calls from supporters at the union's local headquarters.

Five miles away at the Freeport plant, Dow officials were upset that employees struck.

"We're obviously disappointed that a small majority of union members voted to reject the proposal," said Jan Huisman, public affairs leader for Dow in Texas.

Huisman said the plant would be run by managers and nonunion workers. Dow hasn't brought in anyone from other plants, nor does it plan to hire temporary replacement workers.

No new negotiating sessions have been scheduled, he said.

A steady stream of union members visited Local 564 to sign up for picket duty, drink coffee and chat with their co-workers about the long road ahead.

"It's not about money," said David Rickaway, a 22-year Dow veteran who dropped by the hall to sign up for a four-hour picket shift.

Employees can't afford to give up seniority, Rickaway said.

If the plant no longer relies on the seniority system, supervisors will play favorites to determine who gets the best jobs, said Tony Espinosa, an operator for 25 years.

Although the strike was barely a day old Tuesday, workers said there have already been incidents.

Singletary said eggs were thrown at the picketers shortly after the walkout started. And Espinosa said he was walking a picket line Tuesday when he was nearly hit by a truck heading for the gate.

Huisman said he wasn't aware of any of the incidents at the picket lines.

Singletary said relations with Dow began to sour when 12 out of the 17 people who were fired for Internet abuse were reinstated a year ago by a panel of independent arbitrators.

"The company has been mad ever since," said Singletary, adding that Dow officials seem to have directed their anger at him.

Huisman said there was nothing personal about the dispute. The company just wants a good contract that will ensure the plant's long-term success, he said.

To make ends meet during the strike, many union members, who earn an average of $25 an hour, said they will pick up temporary jobs where they can. Some can also earn $37 a week walking the picket line, but only after the fourth week of the strike.

Unemployed family members, like David Rickaway's wife, Tricia, say they also plan to find jobs if the strike goes on for a while.

Does she hope the strike is short?

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes," Tricia Rickaway said. "Please."

 

 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  May 23, 2003, 11:09PM

Accusations of embezzlement, kickbacks lead FBI to investigate local Teamsters

By L.M. SIXEL

The FBI is investigating allegations of kickbacks, strike fund embezzlement and sweetheart deals at a Houston Teamsters local, the bureau confirmed Friday.

Bob Doguim, a spokesman with the FBI's Houston office, said he didn't know the details of the investigation, but he did acknowledge it was "ongoing."

He wouldn't comment further.

The FBI's investigation comes after a series of allegations outlined in a three-page memo sent to Teamsters Local 988 in April by the union's general president, James P. Hoffa.

Hoffa, who has ordered a hearing on the allegations for Tuesday morning in Houston, claims in his memo that a preliminary inquiry has uncovered "sufficient evidence" that officials of Teamsters Local 988 have demanded kickbacks from vendors and fellow members, misdirected strike funds for their personal use, and awarded contracts at inflated prices.

Hoffa also accused union officers of intimidating members of the local to stop them from cooperating in his investigation.

The president of Local 988, one of the biggest Teamsters locals in Houston with more than 2,000 members, denied the allegations Friday and said he welcomed the hearing.

"The officers and employees of Teamsters Local 988 welcome the opportunity provided to us in the International Constitution to present our evidence at the hearing, which will determine the facts, as distinguished from rumors, fabrications and outright lies," Chuck Crawley said in a prepared statement.

"We also welcome the opportunity to cross-examine our accusers. It should be noted that the notice of hearing makes clear that we are dealing with mere allegations, not factual conclusions or charges."

According to Hoffa's memo, the local union executive board was notified in August 2002 about the allegations of misconduct but did nothing to investigate.

A representative of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters will conduct the hearing Tuesday at the union hall to determine whether a trustee should be appointed to run the local.

A spokesman for the union in Washington, D.C., did not return a telephone call for comment.

Among Hoffa's allegations in the memo:

Crawley gave salary increases to officers and employees of the union on the condition they return a portion of the money to him for his personal use

Crawley demanded a kickback after arranging a pension for a Teamster who wasn't eligible to participate in the retirement fund.

Crawley demanded and received a $20,000 kickback from a commercial vendor who installed a telephone system in the new union hall.

(Local 988 built a new union hall last year using nonunion labor because officials felt union workers charged too much.)

Local 988 officials tampered with ballots approving the sale of the local's former building and awarded a contract that charged inflated prices for party supplies for the new hall's grand opening.

Local union officials embezzled funds that were designated to support an overnight strike. Members were paid for picket duty they didn't perform, and a portion of the money was kicked back to union officials.

"Most of these allegations are motivated by greed, revenge and political retaliation from disgruntled ex-employees and defeated political opponents," Crawley said in his statement. "It is unfortunate that our accusers have no regard for the truth or the damage they do to the reputation of Local 988 and its hard-working members.

"It is also unfortunate that this hearing will be the first time where we will have the opportunity to demonstrate the baseless and irresponsible nature of these allegations."

The Teamsters have been supervised by a three-member panel known as the Independent Review Board since 1989. The union has been trying to get out from under the board's control by adopting its own in-house review program.

John Cronin, administrator for the Independent Review Board in Washington, DC., said he could neither "confirm nor deny" whether it is investigating the allegations swirling around Local 988.

He said the board is aware of the international's investigation and is monitoring the progress. Once the international concludes its inquiry, Cronin said, the board will take a look.

If the board isn't satisfied, it can tell the union to add more charges or the board can impose the discipline itself.

 

 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle