Eugene Weekly : News : 9.20.07

Wildish Wins
Teamsters angry over upcoming Chamber of Commmerce award

The Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce plans to give Wildish companies its Emerald Award for Business of the Year. The award exemplifies growth, community caring, environmental values and innovation. But the Teamsters, whose 60 truck drivers, mechanics and plant operators have been working for Wildish Sand and Gravel since April 1 without a contract, say they aren’t seeing much community caring from Wildish.

The Teamsters Union Local 206 has asked the Chamber to withdraw the award, scheduled for Sept. 25. If the award is not withdrawn or at least delayed until union workers have a “fair contract settlement,” the union says, they may have “an action” at the event.

Other nominees for the award included Eugene Magazine, Eugene Water & Electric Board, Hamilton Construction, Hynix Semiconductor Manufacturing America, Invitrogen Molecular Probes Labeling Tech, Springfield Creamery and The Good Company.

In a letter sent to the Chamber on Sept. 17, the union calls rewarding Wildish for being a good employer “ironic” and alleges that Wildish has hired a notorious union buster, Jim Frazer of the United Employers Association, to “strip away” union health insurance and pension benefits, as well as “long-standing union security provisions.”

In the past Wildish has been “tough but fair” in their negotiations, says Stefan Ostrach, who represents the union. But he questions their recent hiring of Frazer, who he says “is not someone you want to hire when you want to reach an agreement.”

Frazer has been called a “union buster” by the Northwest Labor Press, which says his negotiating tactics have led to “bitter labor disputes” including lengthy strikes, one of which led to the suicide of a Cummins Northwest Inc. employee in 1999.

Vice President Steve Wildish and General Services Director Randy Hledik of Wildish Sand and Gravel say they were not aware of Frazer’s anti-union reputation. He was recommended by other businesses as “professional and skilled” and was hired after the negotiator they had used for 25 years died. They said of Frazer, “We were impressed with him and his knowledge.”

The changes to the union contract are a response to employee requests, according to Wildish and Hledik. They say that some employees did not want to pay mandatory union fees and others complained of high health care costs. Also, due to employee turnover, many new hires were not employed long enough to be vested in the pension plan, and they say, this is a recruitment barrier.

Steve Wildish adds that with this contract, “we are happy to say that we have offered the most wage and benefit increases in the history of our company.”

The market, local and statewide, is changing, he adds. Wildish is one of the only family-owned sand and gravel companies left in Eugene, says Steve Wildish. Egge and Eugene Sand and Gravel were both purchased by Oldcastle Materials, an Irish company, and Morse Bros. was bought by Knife River, a national corporation.

“We need to remain competitive and offer our employees the very best package we can,” says Wildish.

“Wildish provides living-wage jobs for thousands of people and invests in employee development,” says the press release from the Chamber of Commerce.

But taking away a union pension and replacing it with a 401(k) means replacing a lifelong monthly income for retired employees (and sometimes their spouses) with a fund that could run out before the death of the employee, says Ostrach.

The pension benefits are “the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Wes Moss, a truck driver who has worked for Wildish for 22 years. He had planned to retire five years from now. Wildish’s proposed plan, which would exchange pension benefits for a 401(k) and push back the retirement age, would force him to work an additional eight years, into his 60s.

Moss, who has diabetes and other health issues, says he worries about working 12 more years at a physically demanding job: “My health is not the best. I may not live to be 62.”

This new contract is “almost a death sentence,” he says.

“He’s sentenced to eight more years hard labor and out of $100,000 of pension benefits,” says Ostrach. “That’s not good for the community.”

“The Wildishes have treated me personally very well,” says Moss, “but this is a major blow.”

If contract negotiations continue to fail, Wildish’s Teamsters-organized workers have “authorized a strike,” says Ostrach, though he hopes it does not come to that. The next mediation between the Teamsters and Wildish is set for Friday, Sept. 21.

David Hauser, president of the Chamber, says withdrawing or delaying the award based on the Teamsters’ assertions is “just out of the question.” The Chamber is honoring Wildish, he says, for what the companies have already done to contribute to the “vitality and quality of the community.”

The Chamber’s Emerald Awards will be given at 5 pm Tuesday, Sept. 25, at the Hult Center.