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BATTLE TO UNIONIZE AREA CONCRETE FIRM TO BE DECIDED FRIDAY

A long-running drive by the International Union of Operating Engineers to organize the Buffalo-area concrete industry comes to a head this week with a vote at United Materials LLC in Lancaster.

Only about 19 workers are eligible to vote in the election Friday, but the widely-watched outcome will affect bargaining and organizing efforts at other sites, union officials said.

The outcome of the battle at United Materials could swing the union's drive for a larger prize, Riefler Concrete Products in Hamburg, with about 200 employees, officials said. An organizing campaign by the Operating Engineers was active in the past 18 months without success at the company, the region's largest non-union concrete supplier.

"I think the guys from Riefler are waiting to see what kind of contract we get from United Materials," Local 17 organizer Jerry Franz said.

Local 17 remains without a contract at United Materials' Orchard Park office, one year after winning an election to represent employees there.

The union, representing about 1,500 construction equipment operators and mechanics, is one of the largest in Western New York.

Contract talks at the Orchard Park location have been on hold for over a month awaiting the outcome of union votes at other company locations. The aim would be to have all union-represented sites in similar agreements, Franz said.

However, the union's prospects dimmed last week when it lost an election at United Materials' location in Sanborn.

Workers at the Niagara County site rejected Local 463 of the Operating Engineers by a vote of 15 to 4, according to the National Labor Relations Board. The union had sought to represent the full- and part-time drivers, mechanics and equipment operators working at the paving company.

The vote in Niagara County isn't necessarily a sign of how things will go Friday in Lancaster, Franz said.

Officials of United Materials referred calls to company owner Richard Holmes, who could not be reached for comment.

Riefler is watching the outcome of the campaign at its competitor, president Michael Sheehan said.

"Obviously if the union is rebuffed that would be advantageous for us," he said.

Although no union election was held at Riefler, the company was the subject of an organizing campaign by the Operating Engineers at times over the past 18 months.

"They took a hard run at us last year, but our employees just weren't interested," Sheehan said.

Franz said turnover among mixer-truck operators prevented the union from calling an election; Sheehan said turnover at the company isn't high.

Union organizing in the industry aims to close a pay gap between union and non-union companies. Franz said the highest-paying union contractors offer about $16 an hour, while top wage at non-union competitors is about $13. The difference in labor costs can undermine unions' bargaining power.

Pine Hill Materials Corp. in Buffalo is the region's largest unionized concrete supplier, Franz said, with locations in Cheektowaga and the Town of Tonawanda.

Sheehan wouldn't discuss wages at Riefler but said the company's total compensation package, including benefits like the company's 401(k) plan, are higher than at union contractors.

The Operating Engineers targeted United Materials after the company was formed by a merger of three predecessors and stopped paying shift overtime after eight hours, Franz said. The change -- overtime pay is only required after 40 hours in a week -- cost employees up to $5,000 a year, he said.

United Materials was formed in January, 1998 with the merger of C.B. Concrete of Sanborn, Frey Concrete of Lancaster and Stone Concrete in Orchard Park.

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