PORTLAND — A small group of Precision Castparts welders are due to vote this week on whether to join a union, but labor organizers and the company agree their decision will have an outsized impact on one of Oregon’s largest businesses.
Precision Castparts has approximately 3,000 employees in the Portland area, but only about 100 of them are eligible to participate in Friday’s election.
Four years ago, close to 2,200 voted down a proposal to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent.
This time out, the Machinists are targeting a smaller group employed by a Precision Castparts subsidiary, PCC Structurals. Organizers hope success with the welders will buoy future unionization drives at Precision Castparts.
The Portland company sought to block the vote, arguing before the National Labor Relations Board that any union drive should apply to the entire company. It also said its operations are highly integrated, so any union vote affects all parts of the business.
Precision Castparts makes large components for airplanes, generators and other industrial products. It was one of just three Oregon companies on the Fortune 500 last year, when billionaire Warren Buffett’s investment firm Berkshire Hathaway completed a $37 billion takeover — the largest deal in state history.
Steve Smith spent nearly four decades as a Precision Castparts welder and said unionization would provide employees with a degree of professional assurance and input on how corporate policies are applied.
“I turned 60 on May 4,” Smith said. “I got laid off on May 5. I feel strongly it was due to my age and my seniority.”
Smith said the company faulted him twice last year for quality issues, one of which he accepts and one he disputes. But he said quality problems crop up with all welders from time to time and claims the company dealt with him differently than other employees with less seniority and lower wages.
“I was in one of the highest paid positions as a welder,” he said. “At the time, I was making $30.25” an hour.
If the union wins Friday’s election and negotiates a favorable contract, Smith said he expects the other employees will give unionization a fresh look.
“If they organize, I really think it’s going to send up a flag to everybody else who has thought about organizing,” Smith said.
Precision Castparts didn’t respond Wednesday to an inquiry about Friday’s vote. But it has said previously that any union vote affects all employees, therefore all eligible workers should be able to cast a ballot.
Last summer, as the union drive was taking shape, a company vice president, Mark Sankovich, wrote to employees warning that “Nothing about a pending union election (and if the union prevails, the possibility of a strike) brings any comfort to us or our valued customers.”
“We believe it is inherently unfair that 100 employees (4 percent of the total hourly workforce) would be allowed to have a disproportionately large voice,” Sankovich wrote, especially since workers rejected unionization in 2013.