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Tape roils a Fayette municipal authority

| Thursday, July 5, 2007

The United Steelworkers of America plans to file charges of unfair labor practices against the Washington Township Municipal Authority after a tape surfaced that purportedly records the manager of the authority's treatment plant urging workers to abandon their union.

Steelworkers Local 3403 President Bob Campbell said it is illegal for the Fayette County authority to negotiate a separate deal with workers while the union is engaged in contract talks. The contract between the union and the authority expired Saturday.

Campbell said the union will "most definitely" pursue the matter with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.

The tape recording surfaced two weeks ago when Jamie Miller, Democratic nominee for township supervisor, reportedly received a copy of the tape in the mail with a note that read, "play me."

At a municipal authority meeting, Miller said she heard a man, whom she identified as authority plant manager Joe Alvarez, urge workers to walk away from their union to get higher wages.

Attorneys for the municipal authority and steelworkers are trying to determine who secretly taped the conversation.

Neither side has asked law enforcement officials to investigate the taping, but a spokesman for the state attorney general said if the conversation was taped without the consent of all parties, it is illegal.

Kevin Harley, spokesman for Attorney General Tom Corbett, said the state's wiretap act "is pretty clear."

To secretly tape a conversation with an unsuspecting person using a hidden recording device requires a judge's order, he said, and is limited to police officers working undercover or confidential informants working under police supervision.

Campbell, who also received a copy of the tape, said he recognized Alvarez's voice and heard him try to persuade the workers to decertify their union.

When contacted by phone, Alvarez would not confirm that it's his voice on the recording. However, at last week's municipal authority meeting, he said his employees are dissatisfied with the union, but denied trying to persuade them to decertify.

"I don't remember ever saying that. I want to hear the board listen to the tape," Alvarez said. "I didn't have any knowledge of being recorded. This is just illegal."

Campbell said he was surprised when he received the recording.

"I didn't know what to think when I received it (the tape)," Campbell said. "I can't believe anybody was that stupid."

The quality of the recording is varied. Some parts of the conversation are clear while others are inaudible because of background noise. A man is clearly heard discussing negotiating individual contracts with employees.

"(Each of) you would have a contract with the authority," the male said.

But the employees would have to "sit down with myself and a couple of board members. What I am telling you is please give me a chance. My word is good. I'm going to prove my word is good. I'm honest. I'm sincere," he said.

Then the man is heard reading the authority's demands to the workers.


• A 35-cent-an-hour wage concession

• A 25 percent employee contribution toward the cost of health insurance

• A cut in extra pay for being on call

• A limit of four weeks' vacation a year regardless of seniority

The man then states that the authority would be able to pay workers more if it didn't have to deal with the union.

"The way I see it, you have everything to lose by staying with the union and everything to gain if you have your own contract," he said.

There also is a discussion about forcing the retirement of township Supervisor Chuck Yusko, who works at the authority and is the union steward.

"They want to get rid of the union and to get rid of me," said Yusko, who received a copy of the recording.

Washington Township has been the center of controversy for two years.

While campaigning for office in 2005, Yusko reportedly was beaten by the son of another township supervisor. His alleged assailant faces trial this month in Uniontown. After Yusko's injuries healed, the authority tried to block him from returning to his job, he said.

A forensic accountant investigated allegations of financial fraud in the Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department that revealed the unit lost between $175,000 and $200,000, nearly bankrupting the company.

That audit has been turned over to law enforcement for an investigation, said attorney Joseph Alexander Paletta, of Pittsburgh, who represents the firefighters.

"We are investigating every area of recovery of the funds that were misappropriated," he said. "We want to explore everything possible to put the volunteer fire department in the position they were in before the funds were improperly used."

The authority earlier this year hired an attorney to review payroll records after it was revealed that authority manager Judy Arrow received more than $43,000 in overtime last year in addition to her $44,000 annual salary. A clerk in the office earned more than $29,000 in overtime.

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