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Union organizers and Shell Chemical Co. officials disagree on the meaning of a recent settlement between the company and the National Labor Relations Board at the firm's Belpre, Ohio, thermoplastic elastomers plant.

Organizers from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union filed a complaint a year ago against the 500-employee plant, alleging managers used intimidation to discourage a unionization attempt.

A vote to unionize failed three days later, when workers split on the issue, voting 124-124.

As part of the settlement, Shell on Jan. 2 agreed to post workers' rights notices at the plant for 60 days, according to company officials, who denied the intimidation charges and characterized the settlement as a minor issue. The deal, which was approved by all sides, was not an admission of guilt, they said.

``There was no wrongdoing found,'' plant spokesman Mike White said in a telephone interview from the Belpre plant.

Union leaders disagree.

``The company blatantly broke the law,'' said OCAW organizer Kurt Anderson, adding that the NRLB ruling requires Shell officials to post notice ``that they would not break the law again.''

According to Anderson, Shell threatened workers with layoffs, pay cuts, plant closure and refusing to bargain with OCAW representatives if elected.

NLRB lawyer Melvin Feinberg said the firm is posting provisions of the NLRB act related to the union's charges. The settlement contains a nonadmission clause for Shell, he added.

``Without admitting that they did it, they said, `We won't do that,' '' he said.

One of the issues in the unionization attempt was worker safety, Anderson said. An explosion at the plant in May 1994 killed three workers. Shell agreed to pay $3 million to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after an investigation. News reports said an August fire and explosion did not injure anyone but caused $100,000 in damage.

``Two explosions in almost as many years is not an indication of a safe and healthy plant,'' Anderson said.

But White countered that Shell has been responsive to employees' concerns, some of which he called ``very legitimate.''

``Many of our employees have seen some very positive steps we've taken to address issues they brought up'' during the unionization campaign.

``Like any industry, we're trying to find ways to be more productive at less cost,'' he said. ``We are working on a redesign of work processes, and we're really making employees part of the solution.''

While the debate over the settlement's significance lingers, OCAW could stage another unionization vote after March 8, one year after the last attempt, though company officials say no such effort is in the works. Anderson had no comment on any current attempts to unionize the Belpre plant.

``When and if those workers are ready to organize, we'll be there and also have the support of 3,000 OCAW workers at Shell,'' he said.

Shell's Belpre plant makes Kraton TPEs used in a variety of products including adhesives, and road and roofing compounds.