National Officers’ Message: 2022: A Year of Gratitude and Optimism

UWUA National Officers, from left: Vice President Craig Pinkham; Secretary-Treasurer Michael Coleman; President James Slevin; and Executive Vice President Patrick Dillon Photo credit : Chris Farina

We gathered recently to reflect on this past year, and two themes kept coming up. The first was gratitude. We’re all so very thankful for the incredible work accomplished by our union’s local leaders, National representatives and staff over the past year. The second is the undercurrent of excitement in the air about organized labor. Both factors helped our union close out the year welcoming new members into the UWUA, with some of the strongest contracts we’ve ever negotiated and with existing members better prepared to succeed as the utility sector evolves.

Contracts settled by UWUA locals in 2022 set the highest wage gains we’ve seen in recent memory. After decades, the balance of power at the bargaining table swung to the workers’ side. But that wasn’t the only reason.

We witnessed members pushing for more. They raised the bar and took strike votes. Employers know they face a more formidable opponent when a local’s members take a strike vote prior to commencing negotiations — a phenomena that was far more common this year among UWUA locals than it had been for the past two decades. Renewed engagement and militancy produced contracts with record wage gains and no givebacks.

In organizing, the wave of public support for unions wasn’t limited to high profile elections at Starbucks and Amazon. Thanks to the initiative of our National representatives, for the first time in our union’s history we’re organizing new members in right-to-work states like Kentucky and Georgia. These workers are seeking fair wages and representation, and we’ve made sure to lay out the welcome mat by putting new resources into organizing. Our National representatives are now negotiating first contracts in regions of the country with low union density — contracts that will set new standards for union and non-union workers alike.

Members at the Region I conference in Providence, RI, in September.

These accomplishments are even more remarkable given that it was only about eight months ago that we emerged from COVID. No one was prepared for what the pandemic would bring. It took the lives of over a million Americans, including UWUA members and their families. It cast a pall over the nation’s economic output. It set back education and learning. It changed the very nature of how many Americans work.

Through all this COVID-related chaos, our union survived and in many instances thrived. And it’s our National representatives and staff who deserve much of the credit for finding ways to keep our union moving forward in this uncharted and often strange new environment. They adapted to every challenge COVID threw our way, and we’re stronger today because of their innovation and persistence.

Three years ago, who would have ever imagined we would negotiate contracts, conduct arbitrations, or hold skills training virtually? COVID’s silver lining was that it forced us to pivot and look at new ways of doing things.

Online platforms like Zoom enabled National officers and staff to connect with more members than would ever have been possible by planes, trains or automobiles. Pre-COVID, National officers’ interaction with members was largely limited by their ability to travel and attend regional conferences or the convention. With new technologies, that’s no longer the case. Arranging a virtual meeting has become routine. And with the time saved in getting from place to place, we’ve all been able to connect with more members.

Our locals and National representatives dove in and quickly adapted to technologies that enabled our union to keep servicing existing members and organizing new members — and in doing so, proved that it was not only possible to keep up our momentum but to do it with excellent results.

We saw the proof at our union’s 2022 Regional Educational Conferences — the first chance we had to return to large-scale in-person meetings since February 2020. Starting in March in Region V and continuing through September in Region I, hundreds of members showed up ready to engage, learn and share. It was clear that thanks to ongoing virtual engagement during 2020 and 2021, members hadn’t missed a beat despite the curveballs thrown by the pandemic.

Members from all UWUA regions learned that our union is out there fighting for all locals — small, medium and large. Workshops by staff including Mark Brooks and strategist Steve Wyatt showed how we’re building alliances that benefit members and customers alike. UWUA General Counsel David Radtke offered a session on labor law and how to use it to benefit workers, and National Safety Director Scotty MacNeill shared the latest in OSHA standards and workplace safety practices. Members left the conferences better informed and equipped but also knowing that with the right technology they can now much more easily — and inexpensively — bring this expertise home to their locals.

Members from Region IV gathered in Chicago in August.

Our National and locals have been equally active in the third area of our union’s work: the political/regulatory arena. At the national level, we’ve made sure UWUA voices were heard in the development of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill — two groundbreaking bills that address the federal government’s response to lowering carbon emissions and restoring and building our nation’s infrastructure.

While we recognize that our country must do its part to address the global climate crisis, we are working to ensure that it is done in a way that ensures adequate production capacity and protects consumers from unnecessarily high energy costs. Having UWUA input on federal legislation, and similarly focused bills in state houses, ensures a rational and measured approach for workers and consumers alike.

As some communities push ahead with bans on natural gas in new construction and requiring that all appliances and heating and cooling be powered by electricity, UWUA is speaking out on the potential impacts to an over-taxed grid and rate payers unprepared for the sticker shock of all-electric homes and offices. Every member needs to understand exactly what it means when cities and towns push for electrification, and we as a union need to amplify the associated economic risks to natural gas workers, ratepayers, and particularly, low-income customers.

The last issue of this magnitude to face our industry was deregulation. We all know that utility workers were largely excluded from those conversations that reshaped our industry, and we — and consumers — got a raw deal. We’re not letting that happen this time. We’re demanding a seat at the table on these critical policies and ensuring we have a say in the outcome. And it takes all of us speaking up. It can’t just happen at the National union level; many of these decisions are made at the state level, so locals must make their voices heard.

There are no simple solutions to climate change. One thing we do know: a push for electrification before production capacity and fair economics are in place isn’t the answer. Policymakers need to understand that. As experts in power generation and delivery, utility workers are well qualified and positioned to carry that message to everyone: our employers, policy makers and consumers. It’s a conversation every one of us should be engaging in. And it’s an issue we can find common ground on and build partnerships around with our companies and customers.

In recent months, UWUA National staff and locals provided testimony at state and local levels, including in places like Ohio, Philadelphia, PA, and Brookline, MA, about the far-reaching impacts of banning natural gas. Regardless of where you live, be aware of what’s happening where you are and be engaged in the process.

In closing, we’ve seen a change in attitude around representation, organizing and political action. There’s excitement in the air! Workers inside and outside of our union are making their voices heard. Our National representatives and locals are leading the way, using the collective bargaining process to shape the future of our union. In Michigan, New York and elsewhere, we’re bargaining for wind and solar techs. In Ohio and California, locals are engaged with employers on converting today’s gas jobs into tomorrow’s hydrogen jobs.

The two-year COVID trial showed us that our union is resilient. We proved we have the ability to adapt to change and come out ahead. We didn’t retreat. We pushed forward and we came out stronger. With COVID behind us and a seasoned National staff in place, we look forward to 2023 with excitement and optimism for taking our union to even greater heights.