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Friday, August 20, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ernst Chain Yanking Toilets -- Product Exceeds Limit Of 1.6 Gallons Per Flush

Ernst Home Centers said today it would stop selling toilets that violate state water-conservation laws, hours after a union had filed suit to block the sale of the toilets.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1001, which has been in a labor contract dispute with Ernst, filed the suit today in King County Superior Court.

"We decided to stop selling them after we received a letter from the water department," said Monty Reese, the firm's vice president for marketing.

The city of Seattle is also concerned that Eagle Hardware may be selling some of the illegal toilets at its outlets, said Kim Drury, manager of the conservation office at the Seattle Water Department. No one at Eagle could be reached for comment.

The union said the chain is selling, at discount prices, toilets that use 3.5 gallons per flush. Since July 1, the state has required that newly sold toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush.

A letter sent by the water department to Ernst indicates that the chain had been notified at least three times in the past 14 months of the July 1 deadline. Reese also acknowledged that Ernst representatives met Aug. 11 with water-department personnel, yet did not know about the deadline.

"The communications on this issue was not handled well at all," Reese said.

In a circular distributed this week, Ernst had advertised the Colombian-made, 3.5-gallon toilets at $39 and legal, 1.6-gallon toilets at $54.

The water department wrote Ernst that it was concerned the retailer also may have violated the state Consumer Protection Act with signs about the toilets and statements made by store workers. Drury said the state Attorney General's office is looking into whether consumers were misled about the illegality of the toilets.

Ernst officials said this morning that they still had not seen a copy of the lawsuit. Christine Mrak, an attorney representing the union, said she had not yet been informed that Ernst planned to stop selling the toilets, and so was unsure what impact that would have on the lawsuit.

The suit is the latest attack launched by the union in a year-old battle against Ernst.

Conflict first surfaced last fall when the two sides sat down to negotiate a new three-year contract for the chain's 450 Seattle-area clerks. Talks stalled when Ernst proposed to make the chain an open shop, making union membership voluntary.

The old contract expired Nov. 1. Since then, the two sides have hit impasses at the bargaining table and have faced off in court.

Ernst sued the union last fall, accusing it of misleading employees with a mailer encouraging workers to file back-wage claims for off-the-clock work.

Local 1001 responded with a boycott, unfair-labor-practice charges and a class-action lawsuit alleging that Ernst failed to pay employees for work done on their own time.

A King County Superior Court judge recently dismissed Ernst's lawsuit against the union.

Ernst has 72 stores in six states.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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