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Union organization while company is in Chapter 11 could prove fatal for FGH, some say

Metal Trades campaigning at Friede Goldman Halter

GULFPORT — Though the Metal Trades Department (AFL-CIO) has launched a full-scale organizing campaign on behalf of 3,000 workers at Friede Goldman Halter in its seven shipyards, some are wondering why they have decided that now is the time to do so.

“It’s ironic that the union is doing this at a time when we have filed for bankruptcy,” said Cliff Cooley, director of human resources at Friede Goldman Halter. “It’s a fact they didn’t come after us when we were at our strongest, had plenty of work and contracts. They obviously think we’re going to survive bankruptcy because their ultimate goal is to get new dues-paying members.”

Cooley said unions take advantage of employees, and said a union may

affect the future business of Friede Goldman Halter (FGH).

“We foresee there could be drastic changes in how we do business and how it will affect our business,” Cooley said. “Most of our customers have told us that they’re reluctant to put projects at locations where there is a risk of strikes and work stoppages. Our position on the union is that we are strongly opposed to the union’s attempt to organize our employees, and we feel certain that when our employees understand and see the truth about what the union is trying to do that they will reject their organization attempts.”

Jerry McBride, president of the Mississippi Manufacturer’s Association, said this is a very inopportune time for the union to organize because the company is currently “struggling to maintain its existence.”

“If you cause a company that is working to provide jobs to have difficulties in their restructuring, reorganization, you’re likely to cause there to be no jobs,” McBride said. “It seems rather futile to try to unionize a company that’s currently in bankruptcy.”

McBride said unions are losing membership and therefor are trying to get members “wherever they can.”

Ron Ault, general representative for the Metal Trades Department, said he and others are helping employees to organize a union because employees have come to them for help in doing so.

“They were coming to the union trying to get jobs,” Ault said. “(We) put a lot of them in jobs but they kept coming.”

Ault said employees at FGH face the issue of “fairness.”

“You have long-term employees laid off while they kept newer employees,” he said. “(They have) been promised promotions and never got them. Benefits are being torn every which way. They’re not sure from day to day if they’re going to have a job. A layoff is effectively a termination with Friede Goldman. They may or may not ever call you back.”

But Ault said the issues that employees have come to the union about have not all dealt with money.

“Employees came and told us that during the day they’d run out of toilet paper in the bathrooms,” he said. “(There is) no safety equipment in the tool rooms, no ear or eye protection, basic stuff.”

Ault said employees were welding in unventilated spaces on ships, as well.

“Welding fumes were to the point they couldn’t breathe and if they complained they were fired,” he said.

Union stories about FGH safety record fabricated, FGH HR director says

Cooley would not comment on layoffs, but did say that allegations on their safety record were untrue.

“This is another example of union- fabricated allegations and not telling the whole truth,” he said. “Our safety procedures require that employees always wear personal protective equipment which includes hardhats, ear and eye protection and proper respirators, etc. We continually address these issues.

“Our safety record is excellent and we’re proud of the way our employees work in a safe manner. An attack on our safety record is an attack on our employees because they are the ones responsible for our excellent record. We will put our safety record up against anyone in our industry.”

And as for the lack of toilet paper, well, that is something Cooley said was an oversight.

“(FGH) didn’t receive a shipment in time and as a result the manager of the Friede Goldman offshore division gave a supervisor his personal credit card and they went to Wal-Mart and bought all the toilet paper they could and brought it back to the yard,” he said.

Cooley said that the union is handing out leaflets that appear to be questionnaires to employees, when in fact they are asking employees to sign up for union representation.

An advertisement calling the attention of FGH employees continues to appear in coast newspapers saying, among other things, that a year ago “FGH had to pay more than $127,000 to workers to settle unfair labor practice charges filed by Pipefitters and Steamfitters Local 436.”

According to Cooley, however, that is another example of the union’s attempts to “promote their cause without telling the whole truth.”

“This has nothing to do with the current situation,” he said. “This is something that happened two years ago. It’s been settled and the company specifically denied any wrongdoing. The union conveniently forgot the whole truth.”

Ault said the fact that FGH has declared bankruptcy does not mean anything.

“Every day we go through these kinds of things,” he said. “Companies are bought and sold every day like a loaf of bread. I don’t expect them to remain stationary forever. I doubt we’re going to see the FGH name on this gate forever. But the facility and the people and the work is there, so someone is going to buy and we want to make sure the people get treated fair and square during this transition.”

William D. “Chico” McGill, who began working in 1974 at Ingalls as an electrician, started working for the union full-time as an assistant business manager in 1987. In 1988 he became the full-time business manager and since then the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 733 in Pascagoula has increased by eight units.

McGill is also the executive council member and vice president of the AFL-CIO for the state.

McGill said whether or not FGH is in Chapter 11 has “has nothing to do with putting off the unionization process. Anytime is a time workers can legally ask to be recognized.”

He invited FGH executives to sit down with union officials and tell them why the union is not good for the company.

“I’d like to sit down and talk to them about organizing and the benefits (that can be gained by doing so),” McGill said.

He added that the union will not “get into anyone’s pockets until there is a collective bargaining.” He said dues are normally about two hours of an employee’s paycheck per month.

“Just like they charge for an insurance policy, we charge for representation,” he said. “We’re not here to run companies out of business. We’re helping them grow and provide someone the best workers in the country.”

Louis Fuselier, partner with Young, Williams, Henderson and Fuselier, works in labor and employment relations, and said it is very uncommon for a union to organize at a company that has declared bankruptcy.

“I think the company would normally oppose it both through the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) procedures and in the bankruptcy court,” Fuselier said. “(The union is) trying to maintain their power base and dues income to keep their jobs intact and secure. It is not always the case that they’re representing the employees.”

Fuselier said there are some realistic and some unrealistic unions out there.

“Realistic ones will try and work with the companies,” he said. “Those unrealistic
strident will not and ultimately cost all the jobs at the plant. Most would wait until companies got back on their feet rather than cost all the jobs.”

If the union does eventually cost employees their jobs, Fuselier said they would have committed the employees, the state and the company a disservice.

“There is more than one way to skin a cat and I think there are other ways to get it than to do t

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