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Dispute between Wendt Corp., union drags on as workers picket

It's been more than a year since workers at Wendt Corp. in Cheektowaga voted in favor of union representation.

But the workers and the manufacturer have yet to reach agreement on a first contract. Each side blames the other for a lack of progress.

The dispute between the two sides goes beyond the bargaining table:

• The Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health, or WNYCOSH, on Thursday released a 40-page report critical of health and safety conditions inside the Walden Avenue plant. The workers requested WNYCOSH's involvement.

• The National Labor Relations Board has filed charges against Wendt, with allegations related to last year's election about union representation. A hearing is set for Sept. 10.

Wendt makes scrap metal shredders. In June 2017, workers at the company voted in favor of representation by Shopmen Ironworkers Local 576. The size of the bargaining unit has since shrunk to 28 workers from 34, due to a combination of retirements and workers leaving Wendt, said James Wagner, a union organizer.

At Wendt, workers learn the first union contract can be a long time coming

Bargaining has continued without a resolution. The company presented a contract proposal in early May, said Ginger Schroder, an attorney representing Wendt.

A Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations School study a few years ago said reaching a first contract took an average of 378 days. Research showed 40 percent of contracts were settled within a year, 63 percent within two years, 70 percent within three years and 75 percent within four years.

Wendt workers reached out to WNYCOSH in February to assess the health and safety conditions in their workplace. The organization was founded by labor, public health and environmental activists in 1979.

WNYCOSH representatives toured the plant in May, and in the follow-up report, alleged finding numerous "serious health and safety concerns." Union officials highlighted the report's contents at a rally Thursday in front of Wendt. Assembly members Monica Wallace and Sean Ryan and state Sen. Tim Kennedy attended in support for the workers.

Rachel Gerhart, a WNYCOSH staff trainer, speaks about a safety report she co-authored as workers rally at Wendt Corp. in Cheektowaga, on Thursday. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"Wendt needs to take a good look at their safety program and work with workers to create something that is efficient, comprehensible and effective," said Rachel Terhart, a staff trainer at WNYCOSH.

Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, called a labor agreement "the best regulator on inside health and safety that there is. It's even better than regulations put forward by OSHA. But we don't want to see those go away, either."

Two Wendt workers who are Local 576 members, Bill Hudson and Derek Muench, said they have witnessed dangerous situations in the workplace. And they claimed workers are inadequately trained in safety procedures.

"The overhead cranes and equipment we use are capable of lifting thousands of pounds," said Muench, a machinist who has worked there for seven years. "Some of these loads we lift with these cranes are larger than a pickup truck."

Another complaint workers cited: a lack of welding screens. Workers pooled their money to buy a $200 welding screen that was displayed at the rally. They said they would present it to a supervisor when they returned to the plant.

Schroder disputed the WNYCOSH report's criticisms. "The fact of the matter is, we've been very proactive in our safety-related issues," she said. Wendt has its own safety consultant, and the company makes changes each year based on a report from OSHA's safety consultant, she said.

Wendt's safety consultant reviewed WNYCOSH's report and found mistakes in it, Schroder said. "I don't think our safety consultant believes any changes are warranted."

Schroder said the company is completing its response to the NLRB charges, but contended some of the charges were "outrageously false."

Each side in the dispute questioned the other's commitment to agreeing to a contract.

"The real opposition is toward having a union there, and giving the workers representation and some dignity and some respect and some say-so in what's going on there, too," said Anthony Rosaci, an attorney negotiating for the Wendt workers.

Rosaci said the union is still reviewing the company's May contract proposal, which he called "massive." The proposal included a management rights clause that "essentially gives them tremendous rights over the workers," he said.

Schroder said "the union seems to be spending a lot of time parsing apart proposals and asking for very miniscule changes," instead of addressing what the company considers major issues, such as subcontracting, work rules, and productivity.

"We would like to reach a contract. We've put what we consider a very fair, very solid first contract on the table," she said. "The union continues to contemplate their belly button."

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