NATIONAL VICE PRESIDENT’S REPORT – Utility Workers: Our Unity Is Our Strength

Vice President, John Duffy

There is no worker more vital and connected to our everyday lives than the utility worker. And there is no union that has, since its inception over 75 years ago, been more able to enhance the livelihoods of these unsung heroes known as utility workers than the UWUA.

On March 1, I’ll be retiring from my position as your National vice president. It’s been an honor and privilege to be a member of this great union for the past 47 years, and a member in good standing of New York Local 1-2. Thank you for allowing me to serve you!

In this, my final column as a National officer, I’d like to leave you with a few lessons I’ve learned in my five decades of trade unionism:

  • The National union’s mission is to support and defend all our locals — from the smallest to largest. We know employers would love to roll over our smaller locals, squeezing out concessions that other employers would then try to use against our larger locals. That’s why we all look out for each other. Unity is what binds members within a local to each other, and it is unity that extends beyond the local to build our National union and our labor movement.
  • Utilities, like most employers, try to circumvent the union whenever possible through their human resources (HR) departments. HR strives to create the impression that they are there to help our members, but don’t be fooled: HR is always there to represent the interests of the employer. So if the company encourages you to go to HR with your concerns, go with your eyes open. Remember, when it comes time to adjudicate grievances and bargain contracts, it’s HR that is sitting across the table representing the company, and they are not on our side.
  • The hypocrisy of many employers we deal with is astonishing. While they often appear eager to discipline our members for violations of company policy, that same management team won’t think twice about violating the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. If our members repeatedly violate and ignore company policy, they would eventually be fired. Meanwhile, we see some managers make a career out of violating the contract.
  • As the face of the company at the bargaining table, HR is there to do the dirty work of the top executives, and it’s pretty much the norm that the company comes to the table with as much deceit and trickery as a three-card monte dealer. When a tentative agreement is reached, and it’s time to draft what has been agreed to, we’ve seen companies attempt to slip in changes to key wording, thinking we wouldn’t notice. In some cases, they’ve even tried to add back proposals that had been either rejected by the union and/or withdrawn by the company earlier in negotiations.
  • Stay vigilant because such deceit and trickery doesn’t end with the conclusion of negotiations. For example, once members ratify a contract, and it comes time for the company to roll out and administer improvements in medical benefits, our members will receive a letter from the company stating, “As a result of the new collective bargaining agreement we are pleased to announce…” What they don’t say is that during bargaining they fought tooth and nail against the improvement that they are now “pleased” to announce, so take the hype for what it is.
  • Producing good collective bargaining agreements is at the core of what we do as a labor union. And while the skill and tenacity of our union negotiators play a big role in achieving successful contracts, equally critical are the solidarity and support of the rank-and-file membership. It is your continued unity and support over the years that has made the UWUA the strong and effective union that it is today.

In closing, it’s hard to put into words the pride I have as a union member. Recently two members sent these comments to the UWUA website, which I think say it all:

“40 years as a Utility Worker. Before that 3 years UAW, 3 years Food & Commercial Workers, 2 years Textile Workers Union, 5 years AFSCME. My mother and father were Union, both grandfathers were Union, my great grandfather was Union; I guess I can say I’m from a Union family! To this day I do not understand why, when given the opportunity, people decline to join a Union.”

“I am a retired Union employee from United Water NJ, now Suez. An article in today’s local paper gave current minimum wage in every state. I took out my old Union card and studied it for a while. I wept. As a Union employee, I made more an hour in 1986. Thank you, UWUA.”

God bless you all, your families, and God bless the Utility Workers Union of America and all its local unions.

In Solidarity,

John Duffy