Originally created 02/08/00

Union wants worker back on job



AIKEN -- Gary McClain's union wants a federal court to make Tenneco Packaging let him work while labor regulators decide whether he was arrested and put in a mental hospital to crush unionizing efforts at the Beech Island plastics plant.

Mr. McClain, who lives in Jackson, has remained on the payroll but off the job since he was detained and committed against his will last year, according to Leonard V. Hughes, regional director of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Mr. Hughes said the union is looking forward to a Feb. 28 hearing set by the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB is looking for a site in Aiken County for the proceedings.

"We are confident by the end of the hearing that we will see justice for Gary McClain," Mr. Hughes said.

The NLRB ruled last week that there is reasonable cause to believe that officials at Tenneco -- since renamed Pactiv -- asked the Aiken County Sheriff's Office to help them stifle Mr. McClain, a union advocate, and to keep workers from forming a local chapter.

The case was featured in late January on ABC's 20/20 newsmagazine.

Pactiv representative Warren Hazelton, who is based in Illinois, has said the company also looks forward to the hearing, which will decide whose set of facts to believe.

Russell N. Britt, business manager of three area operating engineers' union locals, called what happened to Mr. McClain "a terrible injustice."

"The objective was to slow us down, and it did for a while, but we are back in gear 100 percent. The organizing drive (at Tenneco) is still ongoing, and it is going real strong."

Mr. Hughes said the McClain case could lead to sweeping changes in labor laws.

"Imagine living in America and having an employee, just because he asked a question, locking him up, having him drugged, and having him committed. ... If any American worker can stand by and not get upset about what happened to Gary McClain, something's wrong," he said.

Mr. McClain has filed a $9 million federal lawsuit against Tenneco, Sheriff Howard Sellers, deputies Tim Randall and Jody Rowland, Aiken Regional Medical Centers nurse Dawn Price and Dr. Martin James.

Flanked by local and regional union officials, Mr. McClain said he wants to get back to work and does not plan to stop his union activities.

"I'm not just trying to get a union in there for me," he said, "but for all hourly workers and those who come after us."

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.