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Jeffboat Workers on Strike

TEAMSTERS LOCAL 89 TRIES TO BREAK STRIKE AT JEFFBOAT SHIPYARD, By Harold J. Adams, Louisville Courier-Journal, May 1, 2001

Hundreds of employees who went on strike at Jeffboat yesterday after rejecting a contract endorsed by their union leaders are being urged by both the union and management to return to work.

Because of a union oversight, the workers were told, they aren't allowed to strike at this point.

Most of the day shift didn't report to work yesterday. And most who did ultimately walked out, Jeffboat spokesman James Adams confirmed. Jeffboat, which makes barges at its Jeffersonville, Ind., boat yard, has about 750 union workers, Adams said. Many of them were angry and confused after their union, Teamsters Local 89, told them that it did not authorize their strike.

That news was delivered to hundreds of workers who gathered for an often boisterous session at the union hall in Louisville's South End, part of which was attended by a Courier-Journal reporter before he was asked to leave.

Their three-year contract with Jeffboat had expired at midnight Sunday, hours after the workers voted to reject the company's "last, best and final" contract offer. Many said they thought they were then authorized to strike.

But yesterday union leaders told them they could not strike because the just-expired contract has been extended for a year due to an oversight by the union. The contract calls for an automatic extension unless one side notifies the other in writing 60 days before the expiration date that it wants to negotiate a different agreement. Local 89 leaders said they missed that deadline by one day.

"There was an agreed-upon deadline in the contract, and the conditions of that contract were not met," Adams said in an interview.

Union leaders and the company are continuing to talk. Meanwhile, "the union is urging employees to resume working," said Irwin "Buddy" Cutler, an attorney for Local 89.

Those who don't return to work will not receive the strike pay they would get under an authorized pullout, Cutler said. "At this point there is not an authorized strike," he said.

Adams said continued absences will be treated as called for in the extended contract. That means workers will be penalized points for absences, and once they reach a certain point level they will be fired.

"Both the company and the union expect employees to report for their regularly scheduled shifts," read a press release issued by Jeffboat yesterday.

Many at the union hall weren't in a mood to do that. Some were as angry with their leaders as they were dissatisfied with the "last, best and final" offer from Jeffboat. Some signed a petition calling for a new union.

"They're out," said welder Greg Walker, speaking of the Teamsters. "They're not working for us."

"The union got paid. They sold us out," several other workers shouted.

But others defended the union. "Without this union where would we go for help?" asked one, Gary Riggs. "My gut feeling is the union has not intentionally set out to hamstring the people from Jeffboat."

A union news release stressed that Local 89 "is doing everything possible to get a fair contract for these workers." Meanwhile, the company said that "Jeffboat is open for business" as the two sides continue to discuss the situation.

But the usually busy construction cranes stood still in silent testimony to the absence of workers at the boat yard between East Market Street and the Ohio River yesterday. Dozens of picketers, chanting and holding handmade signs asking for support of the strike, drew honks from passing motorists.

On the picket line across from Jeffboat, strikers complained that the contract they rejected didn't offer enough of a pay raise. "They only wanted to offer 12 percent over three years," complained welder Lisa Sweeney. She said much of that would be eaten up by a 14 percent increase in health insurance premiums.

Several complained about hazardous working conditions, rolling up their sleeves to reveal multiple scars they said came from repeated welding burns.

Cedric Riley, a welder who has worked at Jeffboat for six years, complained about what workers see as an overly strict point system for absences and scrutiny of workers. "Anytime you get hurt you get a drug test. Anytime you have to go see a doctor for anything you get a drug test," he said.

Adams said the company is focused on working with the union. "We believe we put together a fair and comprehensive package," he said.