Debate on as voting begins

YOUNGSTOWN – Voting is set to begin today to determine whether 531 hourly workers at Vallourec Star will be represented by the United Electrical Workers Union, a decision being heavily debated among workers inside the Youngstown pipe mill.

James Dunlap of Weathersfield, who has operated a crane inside the plant since 2008 as an outside contractor, but for about the last two years as a full-time Vallourec employee, is not supporting the move and says he’s not convinced the majority of workers will either.

Dunlap called the plant’s pay and benefits “fantastic,” and said he doubts union representation could generate any improvement.

“I am 58 years old and I have been working since I was 16, and I have never seen a manufacturing job as good as what we have out at V&M,” Dunlap said. He was referring to Vallourec Star, which until its rebranding last year, had operated under the name V&M Star.

“I am willing to bet they (workers) have it better than any blue-collar employee in the tri-state area. They have had it so good for so long that they don’t realize how good they have got it.”

Sources have said regular bonus checks coupled with the hourly pay rate has resulted in compensation of at least $75,000 a year or more, plus benefits. Company officials have not confirmed that information.

Union supporter Bill Allen of Irondale, who has worked 18 years at the mill, including several years under the mill’s previous ownership, acknowledged unionization is not about raising wages and benefits.

Rather, he said, it’s about giving workers a voice on issues like the company’s removal of “premium pay” from 12-hour Sunday shifts, replacement of the company’s pension with 401K programs, reduced hourly rates for new hires and providing representation for employees facing disciplinary action. He also believes a union could fight for specific yearly bonuses that he says have fluctuated in the past.

Dunlap said removal of the premium pay came after workers objected to the company’s switch from a regular rotation of four 12-hour shifts on, then four 12-hour shifts off, to eight-hour shifts. Dunlap said workers’ requests for a return to the 12-hour-shifts were granted but with removal of the premium pay.

Workers on both sides of the issue will cast their ballots today through Thursday in the government-supervised election inside trailers set up on the Vallourec Star property. Results should be released early Thursday.

Dunlap maintains that his experience with other union representation throughout the years wasn’t always beneficial. Instead, he described unions as very political and liberal.

“There are a number of guys that don’t have any experience with unions,” Dunlap said.

UE International Representative Karen Hardin defended their union as having a more bottom-up focus on the rank and file membership.

Allen said he does have experience with several other unions, including previous representation by United Brick and Clay workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Retail Clerks International, and has an overall good experience.

“I would not say they all were excellent, but they all were good in the things they were able to obtain to make our workplace better,” Allen said.

Chuck Lepowsky of Boardman, who has worked for just more than a year at the company’s newly dedicated pipe mill near the original plant, also is supporting the move to unionize. He said meetings and informational fliers distributed by the company are full of “falsehoods,” including the company “portraying that nothing we have is guaranteed.”

Dunlap, however, said he agreed with information shared by the company and called the company-sponsored meetings “smart” in their attempt to convince workers to vote “no” on organized labor. He believes those meetings will pay off.

“I’m getting the impression it’s going to be voted down,” Dunlap said.

But both Allen and Lepowsky said they believe the issue will pass.

“The campaign has really gained momentum,” Allen said.

Through a local spokesman, officials at Vallourec Star on Monday declined further comment until after voting wraps up Thursday morning.