Protecting bargaining unit work from contractors, providing a pathway to careers for veterans, training women in non-traditional jobs, and shining a light on the truth about electrification are all areas of focus for the National UWUA and many of its locals.
Each of these taken separately presents a challenge to the union, its members and their communities. In a confluence of circumstances, all of them converged on California Local 132, which represents more than 3,000 members who work for SoCal Gas, the nation’s largest natural gas distribution utility. The result, an overwhelming victory.
Local 132 President Eric Hofmann explains how they won and what it means for the local.
“As utility workers, we approach challenges as opportunities on a daily basis. By enforcing their contract, Local 132 leaders recognized the opportunity to tackle the challenges of contracted work, careers for veterans, increasing the number of women in our ranks, and protecting good union jobs in the transition to renewables. They filed a grievance, took it to arbitration and won a decision that addresses each of these challenges and will strengthen and grow the union.” — Jim Slevin, President, UWUA
The Utility Worker: Give us the background on how contract enforcement resulted in a sweeping victory.
Eric Hofmann: We had language in our contract that said, when it comes to gas distribution, the company can contract out up to 40 percent of the work and everything else would have to be done by company employees. We get 60 percent, they get to contract out 40 percent. We call it the 60/40 clause.
UW: What happened?
EH: They got greedy. They tried to hide the ball here; they tried to hide the ball there. We would get a call from a member at one of our local yards telling us the company was planning jobs that were going to contractors. We started seeing contractors everywhere we looked. It took us a while, but when we thought we could prove it was system-wide, we filed the first grievance.
The company denied it, of course, and we took it to arbitration. We brought in specialists to analyze the company formula for how they determine what’s a reportable hour, what’s not. We had a huge fight. In the end, the arbitrator found in our favor.
UW: Why did the arbitrator rule in your favor?
EH: The company argued that the work they were contracting out was for “special projects” which was permitted in the contract. The arbitrator ruled that since that work was going on for six years, it was no longer a “special project.” It was routine work, our work.
UW: How does the arbitrator’s ruling impact your members?
EH: As a result, all of those hours that contractors worked over the six-year period was subject to the 60/40 clause of the contract. Those hours had to come back in-house, and be calculated as our members’ work.
To make up for those thousands of lost hours, the arbitrator didn’t say the company has to hire X number of employees. He said the company needs to figure out a formula to make the union whole. The company agreed to being totally transparent going forward, and with the last report, it was clear that it is 60/40 the other way in favor of contractors. The company now has 2 1/2 years to hire hundreds of union members to get the formula back in balance.
UW: What does this mean for recruitment and training?
EH: We will be adding at least 200 new members. The company didn’t have the capacity to train so many new employees and we convinced them that UMAP [the Utility Workers Military Assistance Program] could do it for them. The company agreed that it was in their own interest to hire through UMAP, where utility workers train veterans.
UW: How did you convince the company to partner with UMAP?
EH: We made it an absolute condition when working towards a settlement and the company eventually agreed. They learned through experience when hiring that many people are unprepared for the work we do. They show up with their shoes untied and can’t pass the drug test. We showed them the value of hiring veterans. It’s the right thing to do.
The veterans will be hired from the communities in which they service. It will be a diverse workforce.
UW: How does the arbitration settlement impact the hiring of women?
EH: One of the other terms of the settlement was the creation of an entirely new job classification, Leak Survey Technician, which changed the job profile typically seen in this department with a lighter lifting requirement, allowing more opportunities for women and everyone to qualify for.
This new classification eliminates the heavy lifting requirement. It definitely provides an opportunity for women to do something that historically they have not been able to do. Once they’ve been in for some time, and get some seniority under their belt, they can go into other departments. We created a space where women can now come into a department that was 99 percent male.
UW: Local 132 has been involved in gas safety policy and regulation since the explosion in San Bruno in 2010. It was also instrumental in getting legislation passed to reduce methane leaks. Did this have an impact on the arbitration?
EH: The legislation that we passed has transformed the way the state Public Utility Commission views leaks. When we pushed for the legislation, our focus was getting more crews out there to fix leaks to address climate concerns. So far, it has fallen short of that.
Instead, the commission has taken a much more aggressive approach to finding leaks. The level of scrutiny is beyond what we had ever anticipated. This is an unintended consequence of the legislation. While it created something totally different from what we thought, it is still getting people good union jobs to address climate change.
Now, we can really focus on hitting the commission’s goals with technicians, who are trained for this specific task. And, by so doing, create job opportunities for women, and to ensure that our workforce is reflective of the communities in which we serve.
UW: Your local is at the forefront of pushing back against efforts to electrify everything at the expense of affordable gas and good union jobs. Did the fight against electrification play a role in this arbitration victory?
EH: That’s complicated. While the arbitration itself had nothing to do with electrification, we believe as a union we will be able to make a better case for a transition to a more renewable fuel source like hydrogen and renewable natural gas rather than mandating building electrification with highly trained and skilled union members. Someone gave me this great analogy, that our pipeline infrastructure is like the freeways in our state. With the overcrowding and polluting of cars on the freeway, the solution isn’t to tear down the freeways — it’s to clean up the cars on the freeway. That’s how we look at our existing natural gas delivery system, and we know we have a lot of work to do to clean it up.
Look, there is no doubt that the makeup of our energy delivery systems will look very different 20-plus years from now, but when the question is asked who is going to transform our energy delivery system into the future and keep our good paying union jobs at the forefront, we would respond to that by saying, “Who better than us?”