Reform candidates supported by UWUA won election to the board of directors of Highland County Water by huge margins at the company’s April 8, 2021, annual meeting. The winning candidates join three other directors elected with UWUA support last year, resulting in a solid 5-2 majority on the southern Ohio water utility’s seven-member board.
The election victory capped off a two-year campaign to turn back management’s union-busting attacks on Local 477-W members and to return control of the company to its true owners – the customers who pay monthly water bills.
The UWUA campaign delivered impressive results for both employees and consumers, including a strong union contract for Local 477-W members, corporate by-law reforms making it easier for customers to hold management accountable on consumer issues, and across-the-board replacement of top managers.
Taking on entrenched management
Highland County Water is a non-profit corporation, with the customers serving as corporate owners with a right to elect their directors. In recent years, an entrenched management had become unaccountable to the customers due to heavy-handed corporate governance practices, especially concerning the election of directors.
Moreover, the absence of any effective oversight for management contributed to hostile working conditions for employees. UWUA members at the company were forced to work without a union contract for 15 months after negotiations broke down in 2019 over management demands for unacceptable concessions.
UWUA campaign for customer and worker rights
While Local 477-W members dug in for a prolonged fight for a fair contract, UWUA reached out to community leaders to launch a grassroots campaign for more accountability of company management to its customers. The campaign – led by a newly formed Members Committee for a Better Highland County Water Company – focused on proxy contests to gain a majority of proxies for the 2020 and 2021 annual meetings. The campaign worked.
The UWUA’s engagement with the community to take on the entrenched company management has paid big dividends for workers and customers alike:
- Replacement of top management: In addition to the five incumbent directors ousted by the voters in the annual elections, the general manager, office manager, and president of the board of directors have all resigned from the company. All three have been replaced with managers more favorable to worker and consumer rights.
- Bargaining gains: After the UWUA-led victory at the annual 2020 meeting, management suddenly returned to the bargaining table to settle a fair contract – dropping every one of its demands for concessions. In November, Local 477-W members ratified a new agreement making substantial wage gains, including an average 10% hourly increase for 2020 alone, plus an additional $2,500 cash bonus.
Immediately after the 2021 election, moreover, new management reached out to UWUA to discuss ways to improve the parties’ frayed relations. Soon after, Local 477-W members won new enhancements in the workplace, including additional pay for call-ins and on-call work; an improved attendance program; return of work previously performed by supervisors to union members; and new hires to increase the size of the bargaining unit.
- Overturning a hostile work environment: Perhaps even more crucially, UWUA members have reported an overnight transformation in the long-standing toxic work environment, due to replacement of the former managers and a new-found respect by the company for UWUA’s commitment to stand up for any of its members under unfair attack.
- Securing consumer rights: Finally, the by-law reforms and litigation strategies championed by UWUA provide the company’s customers with powerful, new mechanisms to hold management accountable on consumer issues, including a permanent court injunction securing the customers’ rights to a voice in governing their own corporation.