Buffalo Rapids board prepares for unionization of employees

 By Kay Braddock

After receiving notification that Buffalo Rapids Irrigation Project employees intended to unionize, Buffalo Rapids Board of Control met Monday evening to discuss the matter. 
The irrigation district, which employs about 13 full-time employees and several more part-time and seasonal employees, is responsible for providing irrigated water pumped from the Yellowstone River to nearly 23,000 acres of area land located in Custer, Dawson and Prairie counties. The project, divided into two districts includes district 1 extending from Fallon to Glendive and district 2, which extends between Miles City, Terry and Fallon.
In what would transpire into another tense meeting plaguing the project, division lines seemed drawn between some of district 1 and 2 members, pitting two of district 2 members against the remaining board members. All members were present at the nearly two-hour special meeting, which began with a brief teleconference with Operating Engineers Union Representative Alan Ekblad.
Board members were told they had two choices – either recognize the union voluntarily or force BR employees to hold a full election process, delaying unionization for up to four months.
“At the end of that I think the relationship with the employees will have deteriorated more, “Ekblad said of the full election process. “That’s your guys’ choice.”
Once union representation is in place, either through the full election process or by voluntary recognition of the BR board, contract negotiations can begin, Ekblad, based out of Great Falls, told the seven-member board.
“I’d like to move this forward because I believe that you can fix things faster then if you draw them out,” Ekblad said.
BR Board of Control Chairman Ray Roethle told Ekblad the board would be in contact to let him know “what direction” the board is headed.
Steps leading to union
Roethle explained that after he had received a letter from union representatives outlining BR employees’ intention to unionize, he contacted Associated Employers, seeking assistance in the matter. 
“Why didn’t you call a board meeting when you got the letter?” District 2 board member Barry Rakes asked.
“I don’t think anybody on the board knows what to do without some guidance,” Roethle said.
Pointing to frustration on how employees came to think the board was intent on taking away insurance benefits, Roethle asked, “Where does it come from?”
“I know where this comes from,” Rakes said, pointing to a list outlining policy issues that was presented to the board at an August 12 meeting by member-at-large Ric Holden. “I don’t think we’d be talking union right now if we wouldn’t had 10 motions come up,” Rakes said.
“Mr. Chairman, that was simply just a suggestion on my part to put together a subcommittee to review issues with the employees because the employees were upset with the policies that the board had,” Holden responded. Serving a one-year member-at-large term, Holden, who came onto the board last spring, continued, “they threatened to walk out and strike a year ago when you passed other motions affecting them. And so this stuff has not been resolved. This doesn’t have anything to do with my just happening to come on the board.” 
According to August 12 meeting minutes Holden made a motion to form a subcommittee to review a list of employee company procedures and benefits.  There being no second to the motion, the motion failed, according to Aug. 12 meeting minutes.
The list presented by Holden to be reviewed was as follows:
1. Open door policy for employees
2. Wage and hourly wage rate review
3. American Express credit card usage, other credit cards
4. Employee expense report submissions
5. Employee termination policy
6. Personal charging of employees on BR  charge accounts
7. Personal use of company equipment
8. Personal use of company shop facilities
9. Personal use of company vehicles i.e. to and from work, other uses
10. Insurance benefits
11. Punching of mechanical time clocks
“The employees see this list of things and they think they’re being attacked,” district 2 member Scott Sackman said. “So they want to have somebody stand up against us.”
BR project manager Dave Schwarz agreed. “The stuff was all very threatening to the employees and to me as well, “Schwarz said, adding, “and continues to be.”
Schwarz, who did not attend the Aug. 12 meeting due to a family illness, reminded board members that he had written a letter a year ago addressed to the board cautioning them that if board discussions continued to center around taking away long-time existing employee benefits, employees may choose to unionize.
Rakes expressed similar sentiments. “I told you guys this how many times? I said, ‘these guys are talking union,’ but nobody listened to me.”
“My contract is the only protection that the employees have,” Schwarz said. “They have no other protection.”
“It appears that these lists are designed to take away my authority as a manager. And when that’s gone and I’m gone then the board has direct access to the employees and they can do whatever they want with them,” Schwarz said, noting currently as project manager, Schwarz has sole responsibility to hire and fire employees according to his contract.
Roethle pointed to a long-existing benefit of employees’ personal use of BR equipment that continues to concern him and some of the other board members. 
“I hear about this all of the time from producers,” Roethle said. “It’s something we have to address.”
Schwarz said that every irrigation district that he knows of allows employees to use equipment, noting most districts are not reimbursed for the personal use by employees.
“I find that a little stretched,” Roethle replied.
Upcoming steps considered
Roethle noted a need to form a subcommittee to look into hiring representation either from lawyer or Associated Employers for upcoming union negotiations.
Rakes questioned the need.
    "These employees right now, I don't think, they want a lot," Rakes said, noting all that wage requests may increase only slightly to cover union dues.
    "Yeah, but we don't know," Roethle responded. 
Roethle said he believed Associated Employers, a not-for-profit organization that assists businesses with human resource and business development issues, may be able to assist BR with representation during possible upcoming union negotiations. According to the Associated Employers Web site, the organization serves over 750 businesses throughout Montana, Wyoming and Idaho with human resource and business development issues. 
After some discussion the motion passed, with district 2 member Jim Finneman, and district 1 member James Whitmer  and member-at-large member Holden making up the subcommittee.
“Do you know how much this is going to cost?” Sackman asked “And we’re trying to cutback on the employees on everything.”
Rakes expressed concern with district 2 paying for legal fees on issues that the majority of producers in his district aren’t addressing. 
“District 2 feels like they’re stuck. You guys (district 1) have the majority and you’re doing whatever you want and district 2 is left in the wind,” Schwarz said.
“They (employees) were walking out a year ago,” Holden said, telling  Sackman that it was time to quit pretending that employee issues don’t exist.
“I just don’t agree with what you’re doing here,” Sackman replied.

Sept. 23, 2009

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