Striking Workers Angered by Plan to Move Plant : Blackfoot Tribe Buys Company--and Its Strife

Associated Press

The Blackfoot Indians, venturing into business 2,000 miles from their Montana reservation, have found themselves in the midst of a labor dispute with a determined group of women at a New England stationery company.

With the help of a loan from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe bought the Advertising Corp. of America in Holyoke in October to complement a pen- and pencil-making company the Blackfoot run on their reservation in Browning, Mont.

Only last month did the International Union of Electrical Workers--on strike against ACA since July, 1986--learn that the Blackfoot plan to move the 65-year-old company to the reservation, said union representative Robert Patti. The plant has been operating with replacement workers.

"It's sad, really sad," said Martha Dolat, 57, president of the striking union local. "We were promised a job for life."

Medical Benefits Dispute

Now the union has filed an unfair labor practice petition over the sale, and the pension fund is suing in federal court.

The 110 striking workers, most of them women who had been working for more than 20 years, walked out after former owner John Leigh refused to provide hospitalization for women whose husbands worked elsewhere, Patti said. Leigh, who could not be reached for comment, has said their spouses should provide insurance coverage, Patti said.

The workers "treated him so well. They gave money back for a year and had no wage increase for three years and this is how he repaid them," Patti said. "At the same time we were negotiating, he was selling the company."

The Blackfoot say they also need jobs.

"We feel the company has a lot of potential for us from a sales standpoint and provided us with a good product mix," said Joseph McKay, chief executive of the Blackfeet Indian Writing Co. About a third of ACA's customers were already buying pens and markers from the tribe, he said, "and we viewed it as a labor intensive business that would not be disrupted in the immediate future by high technology."

The pen company, with 75 workers, is the largest employer on the reservation, which has a 60% unemployment rate, he said. ACA is not the first company the tribe has acquired and moved to the reservation as part of its development efforts.

McKay said the date book and calendar manufacturer complements the tribe's writing-implement business, which last year had sales of $4.6 million.

Court Asked to Block Move

"We looked at the acquisition from strictly a business standpoint," he said. "We were aware of the strike, but in all honesty we were not expecting to be embroiled in a dispute with the union. It's not something that we have had experience with."

The union has filed allegations of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board against Leigh over the lack of notice of the sale.

And the union pension fund has asked a federal judge in Springfield to block the plant move, maintaining that it is owed more than $460,000 which it would be unable to collect if the operation was moved to the reservation, where federal labor laws do not apply.

A hearing scheduled for last week on the pension fund request was postponed after the tribe agreed not to move the plant pending negotiations over severance and other benefits, Patti said.

The union opened talks with a management consulting firm hired by the tribe before Christmas, Patti said.

He also said the union is attempting to get federal benefits for the workers, contending they were displaced by foreign competition.

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