New Jersey Local 601 Makes Gains Through Bargaining and Organizing

New Jersey Local 601 members recently won new agreements at both Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) and Veolia Water and welcomed three new units from Elizabethtown Gas, following the local’s recent first contract victory for the company’s call center workers.

Strong Contract at PSE&G

Local 601’s executive board, left to right: Jessica Francis-Wright, secretary; Noel Christmas, president; Michelle Christen, second vice president; David Stout, treasurer; and Michael Garcia, first vice president.

Local 601 represents the utility’s approximately 1,200 customer service workers — call center, billing, payment, field collections, meter reading, and walk-in customer service centers. A new agreement was ratified in April with 94% of the members voting in favor — the strongest vote in the local’s history.

Three other unions represent the rest of PSE&G’s workforce: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), United Association (plumbers and pipefitters), and Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). Contracts for all four unions expired April 30, and the unions work together to negotiate economics such as wages and benefits. Operational issues are bargained independently.

President Noel Christmas has negotiated many contracts in his 18 years at the helm of 601 and said this one was particularly tough. “PSE&G made a lot of draconian proposals, but we and the other unions stood firm. We had each other’s backs and an agreement to hold off on signing our individual contracts until everyone had all their language in place.”

The new contract includes guaranteed wage increases of 13.64% compounded over the four-year term (4% year one and 3% in each subsequent year). Local 601 won permanent recognition of a bilingual call center position with a $1.25/hour pay differential.

PSE&G came to the table with many proposals aimed at eliminating the company’s defined benefit pension plan and significantly raising member out-of-pocket health costs — all were rejected. In fact, the unions achieved important gains in both areas. For the first time, the unions will participate in the request for proposals that PSE&G sends to health benefit providers and will have a voice in selecting the plans offered to members.

The new agreement also includes an improvement in retiree health benefits, introducing a new plan as a replacement for the company’s long-held Voluntary Employee Benefits Association (VEBA) plan. The new plan offers participants faster vesting, higher employer contributions, more favorable rates of return, and greater input into investment options than they had under the VEBA. PSE&G had contributed $500 a year per employee into the VEBA, but only after employees reached five years of service. Under the new plan, the company will contribute $200 per year for an employee’s first five years, after which the annual contribution rises to $1,000. In addition, once members reach age qualification, they have greater flexibility for how to use the money accumulated in their accounts.

PSE&G’s defined benefit pension plan remains in place for the next four years, along with a 401(k) plan that matches 50% of employee contributions, up to 7% of pay.

The unions also successfully rejected company proposals to convert sick time to a Paid Time Off (PTO) system and reduce short-term disability coverage from 26 weeks to 22 weeks.

Christmas credits 601’s executive board with keeping members well informed throughout the process. First Vice President Michael Garcia, Second Vice President Michelle Christen, Secretary Jessica Francis-Wright and Treasurer David Stout all participated in bargaining. “When it came time to ratify, members were knowledgeable and prepared, and it showed in their overwhelmingly positive endorsement of the agreement,” said Christmas.

Agreement Reached with Veolia Water

Local 601 wrapped up contract negotiations in March for field workers who maintain Veolia’s water lines in Bayonne, NJ. The 10 workers became members of Local 601 just a few years ago and this was their first contract renewal. The three-year agreement includes the wage increases members sought: 3.5% in year one and 3.25% in both years two and three. Additional gains include: $1.50/hour pay increase for crew leaders; a $50 bump in the allowance for safety equipment (from $150 to $200); and an annual safety bonus of $500 for any member who meets defined criteria.

New Units at Elizabethtown Gas

As reported in the last issue of the Utility Worker, Elizabethtown Gas call center workers achieved a first contract in late 2022 that included neutrality in organizing language. It didn’t take long for their non-union coworkers to jump on board, and Local 601 soon welcomed 11 new members from the company’s special billing, special remittance, workforce management groups. Christmas said, “They saw what their coworkers had achieved through a UWUA contract. With the neutrality clause, all it took was for them to sign cards and they got recognition.” Christmas expects to add these new units to the recently settled contract.