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Workers to decide on union this week

By BEN CARLSON

Workers at the county’s largest private employer will decide this week if they want to form a union at General Cable.

The vote for all non-management employees is scheduled for Thursday and Friday at General Cable, located on U.S. 127 Bypass. A simple majority is all that is required for it to pass.

“It’s going to be extremely close,” said Earl Riley Jr., a 30-year employee who helped organize the effort to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). “I can’t tell one or the other which way it will go.”

The vote comes amid what Riley said is increased tension among some employees and swirling rumors that the company is teetering on the edge of closing its Lawrenceburg plant.

“People have been at each other’s throats,” Riley said Monday morning by phone. “One worker was assaulted last week. I didn’t realize just how emotional this could be, but it is volatile. People who you thought would be good friends for life no longer are.”

The near decade-long effort to join the Louisville-based IBEW Local 369 is not related to wages, Riley said. Instead, it’s about what he described as ongoing fairness issues over promotions and concerns about seniority as the company shifts its focus from telephone cable to smaller data communications wiring.

“This is about fairness and broken promises,” said Riley. “Years ago we were promised a no layoff policy. We don’t have that any more. We were also promised to have our insurance paid for and the last manager refused to honor it. Now he’s been promoted and oversees three plants.”

General Cable opened its Lawrenceburg plant 34 years ago and currently employs about 300 people. That number has shrunk over the past several years due to layoffs as the demand for telephone cable has declined.

Riley said the company’s effort to shift its focus to smaller data communications wire (the wiring used to connect computers) poses a threat to those who have spent decades with the company.

“If I understand it right, those on the telephone cable side, no matter how much seniority they have, will be laid off if they can’t get on the other side. If you put in 30 years on one side and someone on the other has only two years, I don’t think they should be able to keep that job.”

Voting to unionize will also protect workers’ jobs, Riley said.

“Years ago, a member of the staff said they can lock you out or fire you without reason. They don’t even have to talk to you. That’s still the situation in Kentucky,” Riley said.

“Now we have enough people willing to take a chance on bringing in a union and a written agreement on getting severance pay, a 401(k) and health insurance.”

Lisa Lawson, General Cable’s vice president of corporate communications, said that although the company respects their right to vote, workers will be better off if they reject the union effort.

“We feel our associates would be best served — as they have been for the past 34 years — acting as their own spokespersons when dealing with employment issues instead of involving a third party,” Lawson said Monday afternoon.

Lawson pointed out that the plant offers one of the highest wage and benefits packages in the region along with 401(k) program, pension plan and a pay for performance incentive plan.

“While we respect the right of our associates to consider the IBEW, the company prefers to operate union-free in Lawrenceburg. We hope all our Lawrenceburg associates will study their options and ask questions of IBEW union representatives to make the right decision for their future.”

Of the company’s 12 plants in the United States, three are currently represented by the IBEW, Lawson said.

Riley said the pay for performance program hinges in part of the company’s safety record, and employees are penalized if someone is injured.

“If a doctor gives a prescription after someone is injured, it counts against the safety record and hurts our bonuses,” he said, adding that injured employees have been encouraged by management to reject prescriptions and accept over-the-counter pain medication.

“We’ve had incidents where the safety personnel officer sat in while a patient was being examined and having his hand sewn up,” Riley said. “[The officer] even leaned over the body to watch and ask the doctor questions.

“There has to be a line there. I don’t want a safety officer coming in while a doctor is examining me. There are a lot of issues like this that, over time, have become an open, festering wound.”

Regardless the outcome, both sides say they will be willing to work together in the future.

“Whatever the outcome, associates will not receive preferential treatment for opposing the union or be discriminated against for supporting unionization,” Lawson said.

“Management has said if the union comes in they will work with the union to make the plant a success,” Riley said. “We want to make it work so General Cable is here another 30 or 40 years.”

After nearly a decade of false starts, the effort to bring in the IBEW was renewed about a year ago when organizers met with employees at Best Western.

“The union was contacted by several General Cable employees 11 months ago,” said Larry Wendler, a business representative with IBEW Local 369.

“The campaign was started and the papers were filed with the National Labor Relations Board for a secret ballot election on Dec. 7, 2008.”

Although no specifics regarding a union contract would be in place until after the vote, Riley said he’s hopeful that a no strike-no lockout clause will be a part of the deal.

He also said he hopes that, over time, workers can shed the company’s health insurance in lieu of insurance offered through the union.

“If we get enough membership, we could pick up our own health insurance and take it off the company’s hands,” he said. “Then the company wouldn’t have to deal with it economically.”

E-mail Ben Carlson at bcarlson@theandersonnews.com.