WOMEN’S CAUCUS: Ways Technology Takes (And Sometimes Gives) In Today’s Utility Sector

Gretchen Benhardt, Local 455

Over the past 30 years technology has impacted the way we live and work. Remember the days when you could only call and talk to people over the phone when they were physically at home? It’s hard to imagine a world without cell phones, the internet, tablets or laptops, but we did exist for a long time without them. All this technology is convenient in many ways, but we also need to take notice and prepare for ways technology may eliminate our jobs.

Take, for example, grocery stores. I was recently grocery shopping, and I always make a point to go through a checkout line with a live person instead of the self-checkout lanes that most stores have made readily available. On this particular day, there was a representative in the store entrance asking people to try a new cart that had a computer/tablet attached so that shoppers could scan their items as they shop and pay directly on the computer. They were offering a $20 discount for people who would try it.

While I’m fortunate that in St. Louis many of our grocery chains are unionized, including the store where I shop, it was important to me to show solidarity with other workers across industries. I declined that offer because I thought the new cart was just another way for corporate to use technology to eliminate more jobs within this store.

In the utility industry, it seems that many if not all utility companies are on the fast track to implement technology in many aspects of our jobs. Some technology improves efficiency and other technology feels intrusive. For example, I’ve seen and heard about the use of satellite or remote radio reads for utility meters, the use of remote site computer monitoring and the use of GPS units to help locate utility assets — all useful applications of technology.

On the other hand, there are programs companies deploy that track productivity and location for those of us who work in the field. Columbia Gas workers in Ohio and others face possible monitors filming members on the job while in company vehicles. These technology applications feel intrusive.

The good news is we will still need highly-skilled workers like myself and my colleagues to repair water mains, swap out old equipment for new pipes and more for a long time to come, especially given the state of our aging infrastructure, the backlog of repairs and underinvestment in these systems. In any case, we, the members of UWUA, care about our collective financial stability and security in our workplaces. While we know much of this technology isn’t going away, we should continue to do our part to support one another and identify and share insights about all the ways our companies seek to use technology within our industry.