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Strikeout at Morrilton Plastic Products.


Management And Labor Are Still Swinging Away At Each Other, But Will Anyone Emerge A Winner?

All is quiet on the picket line at Morrilton Plastic Products in Conway County today. The only sign of activity is a lone striker seated beside a blue, makeshift tent. For now, the man is armed with an acoustic guitar, but picket signs bearing the mark of United Auto Workers Local 1000 are stacked nearby at the ready.

The relaxed atmosphere changes as reinforcements begin to arrive and the number of protesters swells to more than a dozen. The expressions of the men and women on the picket line harden into scowls of anger as the time draws nearer for the afternoon shift change at the plant. Second shift employees pulling off Hwy. 113 into the gravel parking lot are met with these menacing faces. The same goes for the first shift workers heading home.

The strikers are brandishing their signs and shouting jeers as the cars and pickup trucks roll by. The occupants of each vehicle are greeted with salutations of "We'll get you, scab!" and similar phrases which vary by degree in terms of implied threat and profanity.

The process will be repeated at 11:45 p.m. and 7:45 a.m. when the night shift and graveyard shift put in their eight and hit the gate. Like clockwork, this scene has been replayed day-in and day-out for the past seven months.

This is how strikers clock-in now that they no longer draw a paycheck to produce battery brackets, fuel lines and other automotive components. Their verbal frustration is directed at the new employees who have replaced them on the production line and their co-workers who have stayed on the job rather than strike.

Unfair Labor Practices

Management's shoddy track record of unfair labor practices has led to this confrontational setting that pits employee against employee more often than not. At the center of the controversy is the unionization of the Augusta plant in November 1989.

That's when the financially-strapped company began cracking down on employees and when the employees began slapping grievances on the company through the National Labor Relations Board and making the charges stick.

Morrilton Plastic Products was hit with as many as 18 different categories of unfair labor practices that resulted in dozens of individual complaints.

"Management can throw up their hands and say they were surprised by the strike, but any reasonable manager should've expected it given that kind of labor relations," laughs Scott Trotter, UAW attorney. "That is life in the real world of manufacturing and collective bargaining."

Since then, nothing's been the same and it looks like it never will. There are hard feelings on everyone's part and company officials are making veiled threats to curtail its planned expansion to create new, more-profitable product lines and additional, better-paying jobs if it doesn't get some slack.

"How this situation turns out will determine whether this company expands [from three plants] into five or six plants in Arkansas," remarks Louis James, president of Morrilton Plastic Products. "The probability of it occurring is hurt by every day this strike persists."

Through all the turmoil during the past 12 months and an estimated $1 million in lost sales during the strike, James still has no regrets about purchasing the company in 1985 and making his entry into the manufacturing business.

"My only weakness was my desire to get into manufacturing," the native of Starksville, Miss, laughs.

James, a Vietnam vet with a 14-year career in business consulting, is an aggressive and charismatic executive with a confidence to match the crisp, good look of his tailored suits. He is intent on turning the company into a growing concern and adding other product lines such as body side molding, license brackets and tail light assemblies to its roster of automotive components.

"The union has totally misread me and everyone else," James says. "They've mistaken cooperation as a sign of weakness.

"Everything they did should've closed the plant, but it shows you they didn't understand management. I'm still committed to make it work. I've got a commitment to my customers and lenders."

As the largest minority-owned enterprise in Arkansas, company officials have raised the issue of racism as a motivating force behind the strike but has offered little to substantiate the claim.

In the midst of all the name calling, company officials claim that some racial slurs have been tossed about though. Employees crossing the picket lines have reportedly received isolated phone calls from midnight haranguers labeling them as a "nigger lover."

Union officials say that sort of tactic is not representative of the strikers as a whole and question whether such events ever took place. In any event, they say their cause has nothing to do with skin color whether it be red or yellow, black or white.

Each side is accusing the other of twisting words and distorting facts to the point that the olive branch of peace becomes a shillelagh designed to beat one faction into submission.

Agreement Derailed

An example of that is the differing interpretations of what happened to derail the tentative settlement agreement on Sept. 19. James doesn't understand why the union didn't sign off on the deal since it met union demands and was contractually binding.

"I couldn't get out of that," he exclaims. "I want someone to tell me why it wasn't signed. I think it's outright stupidity. There's no other way to describe it.

"The things they said they struck for, we agreed to. My plant's still running. I'm still where I'm at, but the settlement would've helped the people on the outside."

UAW attorney Scott Trotter doesn't understand why the company didn't follow through on its verbal commitment to meet on the evening of Sept. 19 to formalize the strike settlement hammered out that day.

"The company reneged on its promise," Trotter says. "And to this day, we don't know why they did. You don't have to take my word for it. The governor's office verifies that as well. We resolved all the outstanding differences on the 19th."

Sticking Point

From the company's perspective, the unspoken sticking point is that the union would not call off its lawsuit that effectively ties up state funding to aid the company. That funding is critical to obtaining conventional financing as well.

"If the union wants to buy my company, it's for sale," states Louis James. "But they're not going to run it when I own it. They're not signing the dotted line on the loans. I am."

The union was agreeable to calling off the lawsuit and settling the strike if the company would work out a formal labor contract by Sept. 26. They said the company agreed to do that. The company says it didn't.

James claims that the union leadership has been misleading its members and that fact is what kept the entire workforce from walking out.

"That's why the plant is open because I allowed people on the floor asking to come to the negotiations to come to the meeting," he says. "In response to that, the union filed one of its unfair labor practice complaints."

"There were rumors circulating that the company wanted to cut employees' pay and reduce their benefits among others," adds Jerome Green, company attorney. "The union accused the company of intimidation by allowing the rank and file to see the negotiations firsthand.

"I fail to see how having an informed electorate is a form of intimidation, but we agreed to a closed session after they filed their unfair labor practices complaint."

According to the National Labor Relations Board, all of the strikers must be rehired once a settlement is reached. And that will put non-strikers alongside the folks who yelled at them every day for crossing the picket line with a suspicious management overseeing the whole crew.

Unless all the parties involved can put aside their bickering and grudges to come to a meeting of the minds, a lingering atmosphere of distrust and ill-will intensifies at Morrilton Plastic Products. Meanwhile 150 strikers at Morrilton and Augusta continue standing their vigil.

PHOTO : HOW MUCH LONGER: After seven months of name calling and anger, no solution is in sight to end the Morrilton Plastic Products strike.

PHOTO : IN CONTROL: "If the union wants to buy my company, it's for sale," states Louis James, president of Morrilton Plastic Products.
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Article Details
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Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:company profile
Date:Oct 29, 1990
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