Hard Won Gains for West View Water Workers

Members of Local 416 working at the West View Water Authority recently won a new five-year agreement with substantial gains. However, getting to the finish line wasn’t easy. The new contract came 14 months after the prior contract expired, after a May 2023 strike authorization, and members’ rejection of two authority-proposed agreements.

“There hadn’t been a strike here since the early 1970s, but this past fall we came close,” said John Witherel, the local’s long-serving president. This was the sixth contract Witherel had negotiated in his 33 years as a local officer, and he said it was among the toughest.

Local 416 has two contracts with West View Water: one for 70 field workers that operate two treatment plants and maintain an extensive distribution network and another for 12 clerical workers. The field contract had expired September 30, 2022, and failure to reach an agreement led to a tense stand-off between the workers and the authority’s board.

West View Water serves about 200,000 Pittsburgh-area residents in 32 municipalities over 3 counties. The authority is governed by a five-member board appointed by the West View Borough Council.

For decades, the union had an amicable relationship with the board. In fact, Witherel’s father served on the board for 40 years, many of those as chair. In recent years, the board’s composition changed, and the relationship with the union soured. “During COVID, the board praised us as essential workers, but when it came time to negotiate, they tried to portray us as greedy,” said Witherel.

When negotiations stalled, the local worked to get the authority back to the table but made no progress. “They wouldn’t budge but denied we were at impasse,” Witherel stated.

To jumpstart the process, the local engaged a mediator and launched public relations and political campaigns. When the borough council met, the mayor, council members and the public were greeted by groups of 30 to 40 Local 416 members conducting informational picketing. Inside the chamber, members spoke out to let the community know what was happening.

UWUA National Representatives Rich Cossell and Joe Swenglish worked with the local labor community to apply political pressure. Media scrutiny, coupled with questioning from customers, pressured the authority to reconsider its stance.

“We never had to use this playbook before. It was a shock, but we learned something,” Witherel shared. After seeing the power of political action, the local is encouraging its members to run for borough council.

The contract reached at year-end 2023 includes 3.5% annual across-the-board increases, totaling 17.5% over the contract’s duration; a $1,000 annual bonus in each of years two through five; and fixed cost caps on healthcare for the entire term. Soon after ratification, each member received a lump sum payment with the retroactive raise, overtime and standby pay they had earned.

The field contract was in place just in time for the December 31, 2023, expiration of the clerical unit’s agreement, and the local quickly won a clerical deal with the same economic terms.

Witherel has high praise for 416’s members and board for staying united and strong through the long process. He credits the negotiating committee, which included Vice President Gary Punzak, Financial Secretary Jim Miller, Treasurer Eric Gentzler, Secretary Michele Searfoss, the local’s long-time attorney Ernie Orsatti, and Cossell and Swenglish, for their creativity and tenacity.

In addition to the water authority, Local 416 represents a separate unit of 7 municipal workers responsible for maintaining West View Borough’s roads and handling other public works jobs. Their contract expired this past October, and Witherel was happy to report that a new agreement was reached after just one session. It includes guaranteed annual wage increases of 4%-3%-3%.

Local 416 administers six contracts in all (soon-to-be seven): two at West View Water, West View Borough, Robinson Township (joint field/clerical contract), and two with Moon Township (field and clerical). Water workers at Creswell Heights Joint Authority recently voted to join UWUA, and Local 416 is working with them to negotiate their first contract.

Photo caption – Local 416 executive board and members at the February 13 general membership meeting.