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A former Landis Plastics Inc. employee who has been active in trying to unionize its Solvay, N.Y., plant may be reinstated.

A regional National Labor Relations Board official on April 3 ruled there is sufficient evidence to indicate the female worker was fired for union activities — not for sexual harassment of a male employee, as the company maintains.

The company will ``vigorously oppose'' the ruling, said Linda Russell, assistant corporate human resources manager for Landis.

The ruling potentially is the first step toward reinstating the employee, according to NLRB.

Kathy Saumier, who was fired in February, had been active in the United Steelworkers' attempt to organize the 180-production-employee plant. Saumier, who had been a trainer for Landis, also had filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1996 alleging Landis was ignoring safety concerns.

OSHA investigated the plant and slapped a $720,000 fine on the company in January for ``willful violations'' of accident reporting rules.

Landis has said its plant is safe. The company contested the fine, and the issue has yet to be resolved.

``There is at least reasonable cause to believe that [Landis'] discharge of [Saumier] was a violation of the National Labor Relations Act,'' Sandra Dunbar, regional director of NLRB's Buffalo, N.Y., office, said. ``There is evidence the company treated other employees who were charged with the same offense differently.''

Russell said she ``takes issue'' with that statement.

``This was the most egregious complaint [of sexual harassment] that I have investigated,'' she said. ``I have terminated individuals for less-egregious actions.''

Russell also said the company took extra care in preparing a case against Saumier because of Saumier's union activities.

``We knew, of course, that there would be action by the Steelworkers union on behalf of the employee,'' she said.

The Chicago Ridge, Ill.-based company maintains Saumier was fired for just cause.

``This is outrageous,'' President Greg Landis said in a news release. ``The message to our employees from this ruling is that if you support the union, the company's rules against sexual harassment don't apply to you.''

A USW organizer contends Landis is conducting a campaign against pro-union workers at the plant.

``Despite Landis' clear denying of wrongdoing in a number of forums, once the true facts are reviewed, Landis management has been found to be less than truthful,'' James Valenti, an international representative of the Steelworkers, said in a telephone interview.

Valenti said Landis' actions were unprecedented in his 20-year career as an organizer.

``It is grossly unfair that the plastics industry or plastics industry management should be painted with the same brush as Landis Plastics,'' he said.

The USW has filed to hold a union election at the plant, but has delayed it pending the outcome of the various unfair labor practices allegations, he said.

The company ``remains willing'' to hold the election any time, Greg Landis said.

Dunbar's action sets up a chain of regulatory and legal events.

She has asked NLRB's national office to review Saumier's case and to revoke a settlement agreement the firm and NLRB reached in December regarding other unfair labor practices charges.

If the national board agrees with Dunbar's judgment, the issues will be referred to U.S. District Court in Syracuse, N.Y. The court would be asked to issue an injunction to reinstate Saumier to her job with back pay. The court also could fix a back pay amount for another worker who was reinstated as part of the December settlement. The process could take several weeks, Dunbar said.

The firm also has come under fire for firing a second female worker accused of sexual harassment by the same male worker. Clara Sullivan, discharged in March, also filed a complaint with NLRB.

Landis also charged Sullivan made racist remarks. There has been no ruling on that case.