WINSLOW — Labor groups say a Winslow-based manufacturing company has illegally fired employees for trying to form a union — “very false” accusations, according to the company’s president.
On Wednesday, state union groups released a statement charging that ALCOM, a trailer manufacturing company, fired five workers because of their efforts to organize for better wages and working conditions.
ALCOM President Trapper Clark said he supports the right of workers to unionize and that no one has been fired for exercising the right.
Since early May, a group of workers at the company have held a series of meetings to discuss organizing. On Friday, four of those workers were fired, according to Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, and on Monday, a fifth union supporter was fired.
Schlobohm said the firings violate the federal National Labor Relations Act, under which it is illegal to retaliate in any way against employees who seek to bring a union to their workplace.
“This is a clear example of an employer firing people for union activity and trying to create a climate of fear in the workplace when workers are trying to organize,” he said.
Clark said that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the recent terminations, but denied the allegations, calling them “very false and extremely unfortunate.”
“No employee has ever, or will ever be, terminated for an organization effort, or anything along those lines,” he said.
Clark said he believes the union is misrepresenting the terminations in an effort to gain support for its cause.
ALCOM was founded in 2006 in Waterville, at which time it had 20 employees. Today, the workforce has grown to 185 local employees and an additional 40 at a plant it opened recently in Montana, according to Clark.
Union representatives and Clark painted different pictures of the relationship between the firm’s employees and management.
Devin Mayo, an organizer with the Laborers International Union of North America Unions, who has been attending the ALCOM employee union meetings, said the workers are trying to organize because of a lack of respect. He said workers walk on eggshells for fear of being yelled at, and workers have been fired in groups of three or four in front of their coworkers as a means of intimidation to keep other workers in line.
“This level of intimidating behavior is unusual,” Schlobohm said. “This is not normal employer behavior in Maine.”
Clark said the relationship between workers and management is exceptionally good, and that employees have a high level of satisfaction.
“ALCOM is the fastest growing trailer manufacturer in the country. We’ve been able to achieve success because of our employees and our dealer base, and we would never jeopardize either of those assets,” he said.
Clark said that the company often provides good opportunities to its workers by promoting from within and has done a “good job of keeping employees happy.”
The employee who was fired on Monday, Shawn Nutt, a 42-year-old Vassalboro resident, was first hired at ALCOM in 2011.
Before he was fired, he said, he liked his job building snow ramps for trailers, and he thought that he had a good working relationship with his supervisors.
“They loved me,” he said. Nutt said there was no formal review or employee evaluation during his time there, but he was given three raises over 19 months and regularly worked overtime, which he took as signs that he was doing a good job.
Nutt said he attended all three of the union meetings, and that after the third one, which took place on May 15, he heard rumors from coworkers that management had learned about the effort and was planning to fire him.
On Monday, he said, about 3:45 p.m., he was sweeping the floor when he was approached by his supervisor, who told him that there was not enough work “and they had to let me go.”
Mayo said the workers were organizing because they wanted a more respectful work environment, higher wages and better health care options.
Clark said that this week, the company rolled out an improved health care plan for reasons unrelated to the organization efforts.
Under the new plan, Clark said, ALCOM contributes more per employee, which has resulted in lower premiums for the workers. Clark said it was the latest example of how the company works to provide for its employees in the best possible way.
Clark said that the overall level of employee turnover at the company is “very acceptable.”
Mayo said that, in order to unionize, a majority of employees would have to demonstrate support by signing union authorization cards and voting in favor of a union at an election.
Schlobohm said the fired workers are likely to seek reinstatement by filing a charge of unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board, which would spark an investigation.
Clark and co-owner Thomas Sturtevant were named Maine’s 2010 Small Business Persons of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. They were recognized at a White House ceremony at which President Barack Obama spoke.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287