Buffalo Rapids board contests union’s bargaining unit

By Kay Braddock
Members of Buffalo Rapids Board of Control voted 5-2 countering a recent petition filed by Operating Engineers Union expressing intent to unionize BR employees. 
The vote, pitting two of district 2’s board members against the remaining board, was made at the conclusion of a nearly three-hour-long special meeting.
“I’m really uneasy about making any decision tonight,” district 2 board member Barry Rakes said, who, along with district 2 member Scott Sackman, ultimately voted against the counter offer.
Expressing time constraints demanded immediate response from the board, members were given two choices – either opt to recognize the union voluntarily, thereby quickening the negotiating and unionization process or contest the original petition, delaying negotiations by up to four months.
“Guys, I’m looking at, when I want water next spring, I want water,” Rakes said, noting negotiations could be occurring about the same time producers will be needing water for next year’s crops.
The irrigation project, which employs about 13 full-time employees and several part-time and seasonal workers, is responsible for pumping water from the Yellowstone River to nearly 28,000 acres of area farms in Custer, Dawson and Prairie counties.
Budget shortfalls and recent tense meetings involving discussions regarding employee benefits culminated earlier this year when employees contacted union representatives. 
The counter petition presented by BR Board of Control challenges five of the employees listed in the union’s bargaining unit. Three of the employees – Patricia Davis, Allen Gierke and Timothy Kortum - work in managerial positions and therefore should be removed from the bargaining unit, the counter petition states. Reasons given for the other two employees included a recent resignation from BR by one employee and the part-time status of the other employee which does not fit into the “type of employees the union is seeking to organize.”
John Andrew, election judge for Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry will decide on the matter.
“If you went directly to start to negotiate a contract you can always get up and walk out,” BR project manager Dave Schwarz said before the vote was cast, encouraging board members to rethink contesting the union’s bargaining unit.
“But if we enter negotiations to find out what it is they want without being represented and without protecting our rights at the state level then we waive our rights at the negotiating table,” member-at-large Ric Holden responded.
“It’ll set the tone for the negotiating part and it’s going to make it more difficult,” Schwarz responded.
Holden argued establishing a management team by keeping the three listed employees out of the bargaining unit will ultimately protect area producers, noting those positions can’t be taken out of the unit once they’ve been unionized. 
“This is the time to get them out of the list,” Holden said.
Schwarz disagreed with the strategy. “It’s going to cost you more if you do it. It’s going to cost you more in attorney fees. You’re not going to have any guarantee that you’re going to get all these people off and on top of that, I think, you’re going to incite the employees to a certain extent, which they’re going to end up asking for more.” 
After the vote, a recently established BR sub-committee, made up of  Holden, James Whitmer and Jim Finneman was authorized to find an attorney to represent the board during union negotiations. 
“I’d like it noted that the majority of district 2 doesn’t agree with this,” Rakes said at the conclusion of the discussion.

Published Sept. 30, 2009

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