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Meanwhile, Exxon suffered another setback June 28, when the unions voted down a take-it-or-leave-it company offer to increase pay at the refinery and chemical plant in exchange for an agreement not to affiliate with a larger union (the GCIW is an independent). Apparently nervous about the prospect of tangling with a more powerful organization, the company tendered the offer after the national Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers negotiated a new industry-wide contract in February. Exxon's proposal actually exceeded the new industry wage standard.
But with the existing contract due to expire next April, union officials were concerned that signing a non-affiliation agreement would strip employees of one of their few bargaining chips if labor relations were to deteriorate. Sharon Groth says employees saw the offer as generally a good one, "but not if we gave away one of the major weapons that we have."
Company management evidently felt that employees would be unable to resist cash on the barrel, and went to unprecedented lengths to encourage workers to vote. Daily reminders of the impending referendum appeared on the plants' closed circuit TV broadcasts, internal e-mail and newsletter. The supervisors frequently urged workers to exercise their franchise, and some employees report that during the two-week election period they were actually released from their posts to cast their ballots at the union hall, the first time union members recall that happening.
The push may have backfired, however. When workers arrived at the hall, according to Albright, "The first question we'd get was, 'Why do they want this so bad?' "
The results surprised even the most optimistic union leaders. "It was the first time in our history we turned down the money," says Albright.