Bankrolling a Union-Buster

Is the Department of Agriculture backing a federal contractor's union-busting agenda?

| Mon Dec. 16, 2002 3:00 AM EST

It seemed like a standard union vote. On November 30, 76 service workers at the US Department of Agriculture's Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York voted to end a four-month walkout, accepting the final offer made by their employer, LB&B Associates. But, when they arrived for work on the morning of December 9, the workers found government trucks blocking their way. Maryland-based LB&B, which provides support services to the disease center, had rejected the union's vote and was locking the workers out.

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Officials at the USDA in Washington can't explain why agency trucks would have been used to enforce the lockout. The agency is not taking sides in the dispute, USDA spokespeople claim. But union officials and a growing list of lawmakers are questioning that claim, citing the agency's decision to pay LB&B an additional $45,000 per week to cover extra costs since the strike began. The USDA, they worry, is bankrolling LB&B's effort to break the union.

"Their main line is 'we can't get involved with government negotiation. We do not take an active role either way, with the contractor or with the union'," says Gerry Devine, business representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents the striking workers. "We know for a fact that the USDA is backing LB&B in this situation .... to the point that they're reimbursing them, with a minimum of an extra $45,000 a week, to help the company to get over extra costs due to the strike. This is illegal."

Officials at LB&B have actually denied receiving any additional federal support during the strike. But USDA spokeswoman Sandy Miller-Hays openly acknowledges that the agency is providing additional payments, saying the money is meant to cover only enhanced security and increased pay for managers and supervisors. The $45,000 weekly payout, she contends, does not demonstrate favor for LB&B or disadvantage the striking workers.

The agency's explanation has failed to convince several Democratic lawmakers from the region, including Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York and Chris Dodd of Connecticut. The lawmakers have repeatedly suggested that the USDA is aiding LB&B in its fight against the union, both with direct subsidies and behind-the-scenes support. In fact, there are growing indications, they claim, that the federal government is knowingly bankrolling the contractor's union-busting agenda.

In recent weeks, Clinton, Schumer, Dodd and Congressman Felix Grucci have all asked the USDA to explain its position. In an October 23 letter to the department's Acting Inspector General, Joyce Fleishman, Clinton requested an investigation of the USDA's involvement, questioning whether the $45,000 weekly payment includes reimbursements for legal fees.

"If so, this would actually give LB&B incentive to drag out the strike since they are not paying the cost of extended talks while the Union workers are under pressure to settle just to feed their families. It is time to seriously consider ending the contracting of these positions and instead making these employees of the USDA once again," Clinton wrote.

The situation at the sensitive research center is "part and parcel of this administration's attitude as a whole," Clinton asserts, suggesting that "union busting" has been made "more important than good security on Plum Island."

Schumer has been even blunter in his criticism.

"What LB&B did is really the definition of union-busting," he stated. "How did they think they could get the union to agree to their lowest ever offer without giving them their jobs back?" Now, Schumer is calling for the USDA to stop all business with LB&B, and call off negotiations for any future contracts.

The department has reacted angrily to such statements. "That is completely irresponsible for them to say," department spokesperson Alisa Harrison told reporters after Clinton's letter was made public. "What we are most concerned about is the result. Is the lab safe and secure and our employees protected?"

Still, even if the USDA's actions are entirely legal, they are clearly serving to minimize union leverage, raising troubling issues of fairness, says William Gould, a Stanford University law professor.

"It is unseemly for the federal government to provide assistance to an employer for the purpose of engaging in strikebreaking and for the purpose of using permanent replacements, which, while lawful, are inconsistent with the promotion of collective bargaining."

Moreover, like Clinton, Gould suggests that the department's actions reflect unfavorably on Washington's view of labor relations in general.

"This gives lie to the Bush Administration's attempt to say that they're not inhospitable to the labor movement."

The Plum Island center is the country's only facility for the study of animal maladies -- including foot and mouth disease, African swine fever, and African horsesickness. The center is located on a lush 840-acre island located about 1.5 miles from Long Island's northeastern tip. Surrounded by considerable security precautions, 125 USDA scientists and technicians carry out research deemed so valuable that the facility is now slated to fall under the control of the new Homeland Security Department. The 76 workers employed by LB&B are charged with running the center's day-to-day support operations -- fire safety, incineration, decontamination, waste-water treatment, utilities, and ferry and bus service.

Largely ignored outside of the region, the dispute on Plum Island has become gruelingly prolonged. Voting after months of fruitless negotiations, union workers last month thought they were accepting the last-and-final offer made by LB&B in August. But the contractor claims the union was mistaken. That last-and-final offer was no longer on the table, LB&B asserts. The option now, company officials say, is a contract that would also allow 45 non-union replacement workers to remain on the job in place of 45 union employees.

Benjamin Thompson, a labor attorney representing LB&B, wrote in a letter to the union that, "the replacement workers hired to replace the strikers were permanent replacements, and the longer the strike went on, the more strikers would be permanently replaced."

Union officials have responded by asserting that LB&B never intended to rehire the striking workers. The company has been bargaining in bad faith, without any real intention of giving the strikers a reasonable offer, union lawyer Marty Glennon argues.

"We've been bargaining for three and a half months, and what do they do? Revert back to their lowest proposal? Now what they're saying is, 'we'll give you our lowest proposal and we're including the replacement workers' ... They're just playing games here." In Glennon's view, the demand for an ever-increasing number of replacements, coupled with LB&B's established unwillingness to allow union representatives on-site -- even prior to the strike -- are clear signs that LB&B's goal from the start has been to kick the union out of the Plum Island operation. Despite repeated requests, officials at LB&B declined to comment on the situation at Plum Island.

Union officials are also dismayed by the increasingly cozy relationship between the USDA and LB&B. Shortly after the agency chose LB&B to provide the research center with support services, the company hired the USDA's Plum Island contracting officer -- the person responsible for picking LB&B. And the agency has twice awarded LB&B temporary extensions to the company's five-year contract, originally scheduled to expire in October of 2001. Those extensions have allowed LB&B to remain in place, even though the company no longer meets the government's small company/minority-owned business profile.

Both the company and the USDA have declined to comment on LB&B's bid for a new contract, set to begin on January 6, but union representatives suggest that the temporary extensions were provided to allow LB&B to form a joint venture with another government contractor -- Olgoonik Logistics -- which would allow LB&B to again claim eligibility for the small company/minority-owned business provisions.

Meanwhile, as company officials work out details for that new contract, the striking workers remain off the job, unpaid since August 13. And union officials aren't hopeful that the strikers will be back at work any time soon. In its most recent communication with the union, LB&B offered only 16 of the 76 strikers their jobs back, union officials say. Perhaps the best hope, Glennon says, now rests with the federal Labor Relations Board.

"We requested that the board move for an injunction against LB&B to end the lock-out and reinstate all the strikers, and then work out the other issues according to the terms that were agreed upon."

So, the union workers maintain their daily picket lines at the Orient Point dock where center employees catch ferries to and from the island.

"The last thing we want is for our guys to be on strike," Devine insists. "We do not promote strikes... We try to go back to the table and work out a deal, work out an agreement, which is what we did in this case."