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Brooksville's Cemex workers unionize with safety as top priority

Long conveyors sort the processed aggregates used for all types of construction. Cemex is proposing to expand its Brooksville operation.
Published Nov. 14, 2018

BROOKSVILLE — Cemex cement plant workers who voted late last month to unionize did so with improving safety as their top priority, said an official from their union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.

"The plant there in Brooksville had some safety issues in the past, and they also had the feeling management wasn't listening anymore," said Jody Mauller, the union's director of organizing.

Representatives from Cemex, a multinational building materials corporation headquartered in Mexico, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the unionization.

Hernando County Fire Rescue has responded to 11 calls for service at the Brooksville plant since the beginning of 2017, according to public records. Three of those were for fires. In January, piles of ground-up rubber tires near one Cemex building caught fire. In May 2017, a downed electrical line caused a five-acre brush fire.

And last December, according to a fire rescue report, a leaking diesel line dripped a puddle of fuel that leaked through a hatch and onto a "cooler," the heat from which ignited the fuel. Nobody was injured in any of the fires, according to the fire rescue reports.

The eight other reports are less specific, and it's unclear how severe those situations were. All lack thorough descriptions and tally zero injuries or casualties. All mention providing "advanced life support." Many refer readers to medical reports for more information; those reports were not included in the county records.

A report from a September 2017 incident mentioned a "trauma alert." One from February 2018 said someone was "transported to hospital." And a report from September said, "Bayflight transported 1 trauma alert to (Bayonet Point Medical Center)."

It's unclear how many incidents involved Cemex employees and whether any were workplace injuries.

Federal safety records and prior reporting show at least one fatal incident at the plant within the past few years. In 2014, a 51-year-old truck driver from Spring Hill was crushed to death when a front-end loader pinned him against his truck's cab. Records from the U.S Occupational Safety and Health Administration list an inspection type of "fatality/catastrophe." The agency ruled the death an accident.

A county spokeswoman said Hernando County Fire Rescue has responded to 11 calls for service at the Brooksville plant in the past two years, but could not immediately provide reports detailing those incidents.

About 60 percent of the 104 workers who voted, favored unionizing, Mauller said. Aside from safety issues, their concerns included scheduling problems, as well as wages and benefits.

Before the Oct. 26 vote, the Brooksville plant was the only non-union shop of Cemex's 11 cement plants in the United States. Mauller said organizing there is a major accomplishment — especially in the South, where labor organization historically is "a tougher nut to crack" — and can contribute to greater negotiating strength on a larger scale.

"Whether they live in Minnesota or Mississippi or Florida, workers want to be treated with dignity and respect," he said. "More unions equals better wages and working conditions."

DeeVon Quirolo, who has led a recent charge against a proposed Cemex rock mine expansion near Brooksville, said she hopes unionization will mean more Cemex employees speaking publicly about their experiences with the company. She noted the company's history of violating air quality standards with higher-than-acceptable mercury levels, which she said could affect workers as much as anyone.

"We've had the hardest, hardest time getting people to step up and speak against Cemex," she said.

Mauller said the plant's workers were voting this week on a negotiating committee, which will then pursue the plant's first union contract.

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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