June 2010

From the Officers
index.html Home    Print    Email

Go to www.ibew.org
Safety Takes Vigilant Unions, Not Just Regulators

The horrific explosions at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia and on BP's offshore drilling rig on the Gulf Coast—accidents that resulted in the deaths of 40 hard-working Americans—have focused attention on the need for governmental regulators to hold companies more accountable for safety on the job.

It's about time. During most of the last decade, unions and citizens concerned about job safety nearly wore out the cliché about the fox guarding the henhouse as industry insiders were appointed to direct regulatory agencies by the Bush-Cheney crowd.

But chasing away the "foxes" and replacing them with honorable men and women more passionate about protecting workers' lives than companies' profits will not alone cure the tragic epidemic of workplace carnage.

Safety on the job takes workers standing together, refusing to put themselves in harm's way. And in an economy where unemployment remains high and workers are wary of putting their jobs on the line, real safety takes the protection of a union—something tragically lacking at Upper Big Branch mine and BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

Among the quiet successes of organized labor are accidents that never happened and lives that were not cut short or abruptly altered, thanks to the vigilance of workers asserting their rights. The recent work of Albuquerque, N.M., IBEW Local 611 is a powerful case in point.

In July 2008, in the wake of a successful organizing campaign at Public Service Company of New Mexico, workers at the utility were attempting to negotiate a first agreement when a member of the negotiating committee became aware of a potentially explosive condition on the job.

An underground vault located in one of the turning lanes on the second busiest traffic intersection in town was leaking natural gas. Measurements revealed that the leak presented an explosive hazard equal to a bomb.

The utility's own safety protocol and the state's pipeline safety regulations demanded that the leak be temporarily or permanently fixed and monitored until repairs were made. But from May 19—when they first detected the leak—until July 17, managers did not follow the company's own rules. Local 611 called in the state's pipeline safety bureau to investigate the utility's failure to address the gas leak.

A state inspector asked for the utility's leak detection crew to accompany him to the vault. But before he arrived, supervisors dispatched a worker to the site to vent the gas buildup. The local union contends that the company intentionally backdated tickets to document inspections that never took place. The utility says its actions were unintentional. State investigators found merit on most of the union's charges. State regulators and the pipeline bureau staff proposed $66,000 in fines.

Local 611 filed a motion to intervene in the proposed settlement, contending that the fines do not reflect the severity of PSN's threat to public and worker safety. The results of the local's appeal will be known soon.

We should all be proud of the diligence of our brothers and sisters in Albuquerque and everywhere IBEW members stand up for safety.

But this story isn't over, and the future for a bargaining unit and safe conditions at the utility is—like in far too many places in North America—hanging in doubt.

In 2009, still working without a first agreement, members learned that the company had sold its gas division to New Mexico Gas. The company is supporting efforts to decertify the bargaining unit, telling workers they need a "fresh start."

"We are still concerned about the safety of members," says Local 611 Assistant Business Manager Ed Tafoya, pointing out that NMG makes $60,000 a day in profits. That's enough to pay nearly the entire fine for jeopardizing the lives of citizens who—like their peers in the mines and oil rigs and workplaces from coast to coast—ask only to return home from work each day in the same condition they were in when they left.

And as always, a union is their best bet to do just that.

Edwin D. Hill
International President

Lindell K. Lee
International Secretary-Treasurer