UWUA Contract Campaigns and International Solidarity

Officers Report 2015, Part 11

The assault by corporate bullies and anti-union politicians on working families’ standard of living escalates each passing year, but the UWUA has always risen to the challenge. The UWUA National Union continues to expand our ability to wage comprehensive campaigns, not only to defend members’ existing contracts and hard-won working conditions, but also to get solid first contracts for new members after UWUA organizing victories.

Solid Victory: American Water

Contract Campaigns: American Water

The UWUA culminated a four-year campaign against American Water’s attacks on UWUA members, with a far-reaching settlement ratified by union members at the company. The American Arbitration Association certified on Oct. 30, 2014 that 67% of union members voting had ratified the new agreement.

The settlement included a new National Benefits Agreement with significant improvements over the terms unilaterally imposed by American Water’s former management team nearly four years earlier, plus $10 million in back pay to resolve a National Labor Relations Board decision holding that the company’s unilateral cutbacks were illegal under federal labor law.

The UWUA leads a coalition of nine national unions to negotiate the National Benefits Agreement, which establishes retirement, healthcare, and other benefits for 3,200 American Water employees in nearly 70 different bargaining units across the U.S. The UWUA represents the largest number of American Water bargaining units and 2,400 of the company’s 6,900 employees.

The UWUA’s campaign included initiatives to build grassroots opposition to American Water attempts to take over municipal water and sewer systems across the country. Over the course of the campaign, the UWUA spearheaded successful local efforts to block the company’s expansion schemes in California, New Jersey, Missouri, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.

In August 2014, in a precedent- setting case filed by the UWUA, the NLRB ruled that American Water had illegally slashed healthcare and other benefits for workers covered under the National Agreement in January 2011. The resulting settlement resolved the outstanding NLRB litigation with $10 million in back pay for all union members affected.

The new four-year National Benefits Agreement reduced employees’ share of healthcare costs and restored a retiree health benefits plan that had been unilaterally eliminated by the company.

The settlement also created a novel labor-management Health Care Cost Containment Committee, literally giving the UWUA and the other unions a seat at the table and an equal voice in monitoring the quality and costs of the company’s healthcare plan in the future.

The global settlement also included an innovative feature granting all local unions at American Water an option to voluntarily extend their local agreements for an additional year, with a guaranteed 2.25% wage increase and no concessions. The UWUA campaign successfully replaced decades of hostile labor relations at American Water with a more productive labor-relations climate between management and union workers.

Solid Victory: FirstEnergy

The UWUA successfully concluded another long-term campaign against FirstEnergy, after members of System Local 102 ratified a new contract in December 2014. The new agreement covers more than 700 UWUA members at FirstEnergy utilities in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia, and followed successful resolution of two other agreements covering 300 additional UWUA members in West Virginia and central Pennsylvania.

FirstEnergy’s hostile approach to workers hit rock bottom in October 2013, when top bosses in Akron implemented the sudden closure of two power plants in southwestern Pennsylvania, throwing 180 UWUA members out of family-sustaining jobs. First- Energy had also ordered the closure of UWUA-represented plants in Ohio the previous year.

In the case of the Pennsylvania plants, however, FirstEnergy refused to negotiate over the effects of the closures unless Local 102 opened its contract early to make way for painful concessions for hundreds of other UWUA members in the entire four-state bargaining unit.

In November 2013, FirstEnergy locked out nearly 150 UWUA members at the company’s Penelec utility in central Pennsylvania three days before Thanksgiving. During the ensuing twenty-week lockout, management failed to break the resolve of Penelec workers – members of Branch 180 of Local 102 – to resist the company’s demands for huge concessions in benefits, working conditions, and customer service standards.

The comprehensive campaign launched by UWUA in response to FirstEnergy’s abusive conduct included rank-and-file mobilization techniques, shareholder initiatives, regulatory actions before state public service commissions, and campaign initiatives designed to focus FirstEnergy’s outside corporate directors on the abuses perpetrated by management in the company’s name.

The UWUA also pursued a series of complaints before the NLRB, charging FirstEnergy with unlawful bargaining tactics. In March 2013, the UWUA won $1.25 million in back pay for Local 304 members at the company’s Harrison Power Station in West Virginia, after the NLRB issued a complaint charging management with illegally slashing workers’ pay and benefits.

Workers at the Harrison plant had been struggling for years to overcome FirstEnergy’s bad faith bargaining tactics, after having voted for UWUA representation in an election conducted by the NLRB in October 2010. In February 2014, the NLRB issued another complaint against FirstEnergy unfair labor practices at the Harrison plant.

Two months later, the board issued yet another complaint, charging FirstEnergy with sweeping labor law violations during negotiations in the System Local 102 unit.

The UWUA’s persistent campaign efforts paid off in the end.

In April 2014, UWUA members at Penelec returned to work with heads held high, after FirstEnergy finally ended the grueling lockout, failing to grab a single take-away for all its efforts. Penelec workers ratified a new union contract the following August that substantially improved the terms of the agreement previously offered by management.

The same month, Local 304 members at Harrison also ratified a new collective bargaining agreement, culminating a successful four-year effort by the UWUA to win a solid, first union contract for workers at the West Virginia plant.

Finally in December 2014, Local 102 members overwhelmingly ratified a new contract making substantial gains over FirstEnergy’s previous concession-ridden proposals. A separate settlement of the NLRB case required the company to offer nearby job opportunities for all UWUA members laid off from the two closed power plants, and also to restore a “mobile maintenance crew” to a UWUA worksite in Pennsylvania, after FirstEnergy had illegally transferred the jobs, under a “yellow dog” contract with a different union in West Virginia.

Solid Victory: United Water

The UWUA successfully resolved contentious negotiations at six different bargaining units with United Water during 2011-2012, after turning back the worst of management’s unfair concession demands. Negotiations with the company – a subsidiary of French multinational Suez Environment – became mired in controversy over management’s “take it or leave it” demands for cutbacks in retirement benefits for new employees.

The UWUA’s response to United Water’s unfair attacks featured international solidarity actions by key European unions and two global union federations – IndustriALL and Public Services International – under the terms of a global labor agreement between the two federations and the French parent company.

The UWUA campaign led to improved retirement benefits for new employees, and gains in wages and benefits for UWUA members at United Water throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

The favorable contract settlements covered UWUA members at Local 1-2 in New Rochelle, NY; Local 489 in Harrisburg, PA; Local 516 in Bloomsburg, PA; Local 375 in Jersey City and Hackensack, NJ; Local 584 in Wilmington, DE; and Local 503 in Toms River, NJ.

Current Campaigns

The UWUA is currently embroiled in a contract fight at Aqua America – yet another hugely-profitable corporation scheming to take advantage of UWUA members.

In late 2014, Aqua laid off UWUA members in Pennsylvania after contracting their jobs to an outside company. In Fort Wayne, IN, Aqua cut back on the UWUA bargaining unit after reneging on job commitments previously made to local union leaders. And in every bargaining unit across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana, Aqua unilaterally froze UWUA members’ retirement benefits under the defined benefit plan, substituting instead a substandard 401k plan.

Incredibly, Aqua pretended to also freeze senior executives’ pension plan benefits at the end of 2014, while simultaneously reinstating those benefits under a cushy “supplemental” retirement scheme for top bosses. UWUA campaign staff uncovered this “sleight of hand” pension scheme after reviewing the fine print in Aqua’s 2015 proxy statement to investors.

The UWUA responded to Aqua’s abuse of special retirement benefits for executives with a shareholder proposal for the company’s 2015 annual meeting, urging the Board of Directors to submit any future grant of preferential executive benefits to a vote by shareholders. Aqua management strongly opposed the UWUA’s modest reform proposal, seemingly oblivious to the fact that cushy executive perks are financed at the expense of hourly workers and investors, and are not “entitlements” that must be routinely bestowed on overpaid top bosses.

Global Partners

In many of UWUA’s strategic campaigns against corporate bullies, the UWUA partners with the IndustriALL and PSI union federations – especially in cases where our corporate adversaries conduct business internationally. The UWUA belongs to both global federations, which unite similar unions together to advance workers’ interests worldwide.

Whenever the UWUA confronts abusive corporate behavior at the global level, IndustriALL and PSI have extended crucial international solidarity for embattled UWUA members. At the same time, the UWUA is recognized around the globe as a union that routinely stands with union workers internationally to confront corporate attacks against working families on every continent.