Moving Our Union Forward!

In a joint column, UWUA's leadership reflects on 2021's highs and lows and what members should expect in 2022.

UWUA National Officers, left to right, Secretary-Treasurer Michael Coleman, Executive Vice President Patrick Dillon, President James Slevin, and Vice President John Duffy.

This past year will surely be remembered as one of the most challenging in our country’s, indeed our world’s, history.  As we began 2021, we all looked forward to putting the pandemic behind us. There are few families that did not experience the loss of a loved one to the virus, and our union grieves for members lost this year to both COVID and job accidents. No one anticipated that come December we’d be bracing for new variants and outbreak spikes or that the vaccination itself would become a polarizing issue.

While we endured COVID fatigue, this year also had bright spots. One of the highlights was our union’s 75th anniversary. In recognition of that milestone, we initiated a three-part review of our union’s history in The Utility Worker and we sent out a free UWUA anniversary sticker to all magazine subscribers to mark that occasion; the series concludes on pages 12-13 of this issue.

History is always the best teacher. In our case, it is instructive because it reminds us that we’ve overcome formidable obstacles many times in our seven-plus decades. We faced employer opposition, sometimes violent, as we organized hundreds of thousands of workers from the 1930s onward. We have negotiated countless contracts, waging strikes when necessary to achieve the gains our members sought. We’ve testified and marched in state capitals and Washington for workers’ rights, civil rights and to hold utilities accountable to customers and communities. We survived the attacks of deregulation and privatization of public utilities. Time and again, we answered the call when communities were devastated by hurricanes, terrorism, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Through it all, our members demonstrated fierce determination, dedication, selflessness, and resilience.

How we achieved these past successes can serve to inform our approach to the challenges we face today and will encounter as we move into the future. Most importantly, we’re reminded that while the size and nature of the battles may change, the winning formula is always same: we win when we stand united.

This past year has posed unique challenges to our union’s unity. It is harder to stay united with our workforce dispersed. Many members are still working from home and missing the comradery of the workplace. Even our recent Power for America conference (see pp. 14-15) had to be held virtually. We all long for a return to “normalcy,” to go back to our worksites, reconnect with our union brothers and sisters, and once again congregate for in-person membership meetings.

Priorities for 2022

The dynamics of our industries are changing. We’re seeing employers take advantage of dispersed workforces to increase the use of outside contractors, thinking that we won’t notice their attempts to take away our work. Every generation of utility workers has faced this contracting issue, and we’ve fought back many employer attempts to use it to weaken our union.

This time is different and will require new strategies to fight back on our part. Utilities are greatly expanding the use of contractors to perform “live” work. We know firsthand what happens when contractors take our work: quality erodes, customer satisfaction declines, and the public is put in danger. When work is contracted, not only is our work taken away, but it’s also our members who are most often tasked with cleaning up the mess contractors leave in their wake. Because UWUA members are often the closest proxy consumers have to “the company,” it is our members who hear customer complaints and bear the blame in consumers’ minds for poor decisions made by management.

Adding to this, we’ve noticed a disturbing rise in dishonesty by some employers in their dealings with employees and the public. Boston prosecutors recently won indictments against Atlantic Coast Utilities, its owner, and an employee for several counts of perjury related to a safety record coverup following the on-the-job deaths of two employees last February.

When companies aren’t forthright, consumers lose trust and blame workers at the job site for problems that rightly lie at the feet of company executives. It’s disheartening and depressing for our members to have to repeatedly try to explain away problems that are beyond their pay grade and control. This can snowball into a downward spiral of poor morale and job dissatisfaction.

The issues of contracting and corporate dishonesty are bigger than we can solve by ourselves. We need to partner with our customers, communities and elected officials. Our members are all that stand between the customer and the life-giving resources of water, gas and electric. We must make employer accountability — to both workers and consumers — a priority for contract bargaining and legislative and regulatory advocacy in 2022. Educating and engaging our customers on the issues will be key to our success.

UWUA 2019 30th Constitutional Convention.

Unity is everything

While we aspire to unity, there are strong forces that seek to sow and profit from division. Some have perfected the use of social media to foment disagreement and alienation. They’ve taken advantage of COVID-induced isolation to further polarize our already partisan country. There are those that seek to benefit from our division.

We’ve achieved too much to let them erode our success. Instead, we need to keep our “eye on the prize,” and that prize is solidarity. More than any other factor, it is our unity that has delivered the gains we’ve achieved over the past 75 years. And it is our unity that will lay the foundation for further improvement over the coming decades. We stay united, we continue to make gains. Unity is how we win everything.

Maintaining strong unity is more important than ever. We can’t let the forces of division divert our attention from what unites us, and we must not fall prey to the those that would try to distract us from our common goals of safe workplaces, good wages and benefits, a collective voice on the job, and a shared commitment to our customers and communities.

Our 2022 regional conferences will be opportunities to regroup and recommit to building unity around our common goals. They will also serve to reenergize our union’s organizing program at the local, regional, and national levels. We stay strong through unity as well as through increasing our numbers. There are workers out there eager to gain the benefits of the UWUA voice. You can read about our newest New Jersey and Connecticut members on pages 6-7. The federal government’s commitment of $73 billion to modernize the nation’s electricity grid — the single largest federal investment ever in power transmission — will present new opportunities for our locals to expand their memberships and build union power.

As your elected officers, we’re committed to leading your union in areas we can all agree benefit our members and our families: organizing the unorganized to build our union’s strength; representing our members in collective bargaining and contract enforcement; and advocating for laws and regulations that advance the interests of our members and our communities. To paraphrase George Washington in his farewell address to the nation, we will have no permanent friends, just permanent interests.

Throughout our 75 years, we have always risen to face whatever challenges came our way. The recent Power for America virtual conference showed that we continue to have the ability to adapt and take on the unexpected and we are ready to lead for the challenges ahead.

The 2022 UWUA Women’s Caucus calendar is available now! It spotlights members in field and office utility work. For more information, email vking@uwua.net.