Originally created 03/28/00

Hearing begins in Tenneco case



AIKEN -- Officials at Tenneco Packaging are expected to testify in a labor hearing today that they feared workplace violence last July when they had veteran employee and union activist Gary McClain arrested.

The incident landed Mr. McClain in a mental hospital against his will and put the Beech Island company -- now called Pactiv -- on the defensive end of his $9 million federal lawsuit, which claims Tenneco conspired with law enforcement to squelch his union activity.

The arrest occurred the day after what Mr. McClain called an "anti-union meeting" where he showed up wearing a union cap and challenged management to let union representatives talk with workers. Officials are expected to testify that the timing was coincidence.

The case was publicized in January on ABC-TV's 20/20.

The hearing under way in Aiken is to determine whether Tenneco engaged in unfair labor practices to keep the International Union of Operating Engineers from organizing at the plant. The National Labor Relations Board is asking an administrative law judge to rule that Tenneco violated labor laws and that the plant must let Mr. McClain return to work.

Tenneco says the 18-year employee can come back if he's found mentally fit by a doctor the company chooses. He has refused to take the company's psychiatric exam.

Washington attorney Harold Weinrich said Monday that his clients "did what any prudent employer would do if concerned about workplace violence." He said there were reports of erratic behavior when Mr. McClain was taken off a regular weekday job, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and put on a rotating shift of 12-hour days, "four on and four off," with variable hours.

The company called Mr. McClain's doctor and the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, suggesting other workers were afraid of him and asking if he had a history of violence, Mr. Weinrich said.

Mr. McClain described it from his perspective as the hearing began. He said he was on his way to work July 29 when two deputies' cars passed him. He thought they were on their way to a wreck and he slowed down, he said. So did they as other patrol cars pulled on both sides of his truck and behind it. Boxed in, "I had to stop in the middle of the highway," he said.

The officers jumped out of their cars with guns drawn, and sheriff's Chief Deputy "Jody Rowland asked me, `Are you Greg McClain?' I said, `No, I'm Gary McClain,' and he said, `Gary McClain, you're under arrest."'

Cuffed in a police car, Mr. McClain said he heard a radio transmission: "We've got that Tenneco package."

He was taken first to Aiken Regional Medical Centers, then to Charter Rivers Hospital in Columbia, where he was kept two weeks.

The arrest was on a years-old misdemeanor charge.

Mr. McClain testified that nobody had ever accused him of being dangerous. For more than 17 years, he wore a folding knife in a leather case on his belt at work, he said, because it would do in one clean cut what company tools would not. And he said there was no extra security or precaution taken when he was assigned to photograph former Gov. David Beasley on a plant tour.

Mr. McClain was once referred to employee counseling for anger control after his complaints that someone was sabotaging his work were found to be justified, plant manager Joseph Garrison testified.

Mr. Garrison has not been questioned about steps management took within hours of the mandatory meeting with employees where he spoke about union organizers' efforts. He said he did not recall all of the details of that meeting as Mr. McClain described them, however.

In other testimony Monday, union organizer Russell Britt said there was animosity at Tenneco. He said he and another union representative were passing out handbills to employees on the highway right of way last spring when a guard told them to get off private property, then called the sheriff's office after consulting with management.

The deputy who answered the call asked the guard, "Where do you think they should stand?" Mr. Britt recalled. "He went out in the middle of the main highway and said, `Right here,"' he testified.

Dr. David Steiner of Aiken briefly testified about the call he got from a plant doctor asking what the company should do if Mr. McClain acted in "paranoid and bizarre ways."

The NLRB is expected to call Chief Deputy Rowland today. He and Sheriff Howard Sellers ignored their federal subpoenas Monday, nearly prompting a request to a federal judge to have them brought to the hearing. NLRB lawyer Don R. Gattalaro of Winston-Salem, N.C., said Sheriff Sellers' attorney assured him the subpoena will be responded to today.

Chief Deputy Rowland was ill Monday and the sheriff was in Quantico, Va., Mr. Gattalaro said.

He said before it's over, the hearing will show that something happened that most people expect only from "the Soviet system," where "dissidents are taken to mental hospitals."

"We assume it could never happen in this country," Mr. Gattalaro said. "But it's exactly what happened in this case. It happened to Gary McClain."

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