The Multinational Monitor

March 15, 1986 - VOLUME 7 - NUMBER 5

C O R P O R A T E   C A P A I G N S   -   W O R K E R S   H O L D   T H E   L I N E

Locked Out Workers Go Public to Pressure BASF

Nearly 400 workers were locked out of the BASF Corp. plant in Geismar, Louisiana in June of 1984 when they failed to reach a compromise with the company on wages, benefits and jobs. Twenty-one months later, what began as an isolated labor-management conflict has broadened into a well-publicized debate over the company's labor practices and safety standards.

Local 4-620 of the Oil Chemical & Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) has prompted a congressional investigation of worker health and safety conditions at BASF's Geismar plant and raised disturbing parallels between the company's Geismar facility and the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

These and other actions by the locked-out workers have put the multi-billion dollar chemical giant on the defensive. On March 6, 1986, company officials held a press conference to refute charges by the OCAW Local that BASF had misrepresented the number of workers injured on the job and thereby concealed the dangers that the plant posed for the surrounding community.

What distinguishes Local 4-620's fight from many others taking place throughout the United States today is the fact that the union has bypassed the traditional forums for labor disputes-the negotiating table and the company gates-to take its cause directly to the public. BASF workers have successfully mobilized a broad coalition of community and civic groups to help them fight BASF.

Problems between the union and BASF came to a head in July 1983, when BASF told OCAW's local officers that they were no longer allowed to "consult with aggrieved employees relative to contractual violations," thereby removing a key element of their contract with the union. The company then forced the union to move from its on-site offices. The union called on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to issue a ruling on the company's action.

After the company appealed a preliminary ruling by an NLRB administrative law judge that BASF had violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the NLRB ordered the company to reinstate the local and the contract. The company is currently appealing the NLRB decision in federal court.

By the time the local union's contract was up for renegotiation in June 1984, the company had laid the groundwork to challenge the OCAW's authority on behalf of the workers at the plant. The company "posted notices claiming the existence of a decertification petition," according to union reports and encouraged union members to join other plants that had debunked their locals.

Once negotiations were underway, the company offered a three year contract, with a freeze in wages for the first eight months of the contract, and "incremental wage increases in each subsequent year of the contract." The union in turn proposed a one year contract with an eight percent annual wage increase.

When the existing contract expired on June 15, 1984, the company locked out the unionized workers, claiming that the plant dealt with too many toxic chemicals and dangerous processes to allow workers involved in the dispute to work there.

"The potential danger posed by carelessness, negligence, walk-outs, and sabotage," the company claimed, "is simply too great to justify leaving the work force in place."

Although negotiations ground to a halt after the lockout, production inside the plant continued. The company first used salaried employees to run the plant and then hired contractors to fill the posts left vacant by the locked-out workers.

The company's actions provoked the union to charge that "BASF has seemingly declared war on its U.S. workers." While in 1979, more than 2000 BASF workers were represented by the OCAW, by mid-1985 only 200 remained under union contract with the company. The rest "had been locked out, broken out of the union or laid off," according to an OCAW report.

After attempts to negotiate and appeals to the National Labor Relations Board had failed to protect workers' rights, Local 4-620 joined with the OCAW and the Industrial Union Department (IUD) of the AFL-CIO to devise a strategy that would force BASF to bargain in good faith.

"The severity of BASF's assault on unions," the OCAW charged, required the union to mount "a coordinated campaign against BASF, AG."

The union began an extensive investigation into every aspect of the company's U.S. and West German operations.

From sewer permits to safety inspections, the union challenged the company with the same refrain: a company that deals with as many toxic chemicals as BASF needs a highly-trained and unionized workforce. Temporary help and company assurances of safety, said the union, are not enough to protect employees inside the plant or residents from the surrounding community.

To back up its case, the union pointed to its past role as the community watchdog against unsafe practices at the plant. When BASF was a union shop, workers had the right to refuse work they judged unsafe, effectively preventing the company from bypassing safety practices in order to cut costs, union officials said.

Now, however, BASF is "not accountable to anyone," said Efnard Grimillion, chairman of Local 4-620. Before the lock-out, Grimillion said, "if anything had gone amiss we had the right to refuse to do unsafe work. Now the workers either do it or they're fired."

The company's decision to rely on temporary workers has provoked outrage among members of the union. According to Local 4-620, the high rate of turnover among these workers, coupled with their lack of experience in handling chemicals, could spell disaster for the nearby community.

"Risks associated with the operation of this facility have risen alarmingly since the introduction of a temporary workforce," charged the union. Company documents show leaks of chlorine, phosgene and toluene diisocyanate have injured both workers and the environment since the lockout, according to a report by the local. In one month alone, the company reported accidents occurring at the rate of one a day, union officials charged.

"The pattern of incidents in Louisiana bears a striking resemblance to the pattern of chemical releases at the Bhopal, India, plant in the years prior to the tragedy there," an OCAW report stated.

The company bitterly refutes such attempts to liken the Geismar facility with the Union Carbide plant in India, where a methyl isocyanate leak left more than 2,000 dead and hundreds of thousands injured, and denies that the use of temporary employees in any way jeopardizes the safety of Geismar residents.

But union investigations into health and safety problems at the plant point to severe discrepancies between what BASF officials have reported to the public and what the company's own internal memos show.

According to the records of one contractor hired by BASF, more than 471 days of lost worker time were accumulated between January and December in 1985. (A lost time injury is defined as an injury where the worker is unable to return to work during his or her next scheduled shift.) Although the union acknowledged that some of these days may have been carried over from the previous year, the figures, they say, represent a disturbing indictment of safety problems at the plant. The union was unable to obtain records for the other six contractors that hire workers for the BASF plant.

The figures the union did obtain, however, clearly contradicted the number of work related injuries the company cited in an advertisement it placed in the Sunday Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the advertisement, BASF announced an award of the "Triple Crown of Safety" to its workers at the Geismar plant for working a "full year without a single lost-time injury."

The discrepancy stemmed from the fact that since the 550 contract workers at the Geismar facility did not work directly for the company, they were not included in the figures, BASF officials said. Only secretarial, clerical, supervisory and management workers were included in the company's statistics.

Persistent discrepancies between union statistics and company reports prompted Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, to enter the fray.

"We think there is strong evidence of intentional and repeated misinformation regarding the safety of the plant," said Julian Epstein, the chief spokesperson for Conyers. "And we think there is strong evidence that the plant is being operated in a highly dangerous and even reckless manner."

On Dec. 19, 1985, Epstein announced that the Conyers subcommittee would investigate allegations of safety problems at the Geismar plant.

Along with a congressional investigation, the local has also prompted the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to investigate allegations that BASF has violated several of the OECD's guidelines for multinational enterprises. Under the guidelines, among other things, the parent company is required to treat workers in foreign subsidiaries like workers in its home state. Since West German law prohibits lockouts, the union alleges that the company is applying a double standard by locking out its Louisiana workers.

Union officials have also traveled to West Germany, where BASF A.G. the parent company of BASF Corp. is headquartered, to publicize what the union calls BASF's "attack on U.S. workers." Union officials were able to convince members of the Green Party to join union ranks in condemning the company and pressuring it to settle with the locked out workers. Henri Suhr, a member of the West German Parliament, asked the company to "abandon its deeply anti-social and dangerous policy," at a Bonn press conference.

In less than a year, Local 4-620, with the support of the International and the IUD, has been able to mobilize support for its battle against BASF throughout the United States and abroad, prompting the company to ask in a background report in early March, "How did a labor dispute in Geismar, Louisiana, develop into an international incident...?"

The workers' campaign has not yet persuaded BASF to re-open its gates to the union, at least not without demanding severe retrenchments and wage reductions. But by drawing on a broad base of support outside the workplace, Local 4-620 is teaching both labor and management that a union's greatest strength may lie outside the workplace.

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