July 2011

Members Defend Wage Gains at Public Utility
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As more public sector workers try to decide whether or not to join unions, the simplest stories often speak the loudest. That could be the case for unorganized workers in Tacoma, Wash., who are paying close attention to what is happening at Tacoma Power, a municipal utility where workers are represented by Local 483.

The Tacoma city council voted to freeze wages for two years for all non-represented municipal workers. But, in early May, the council passed an ordinance granting IBEW utility workers a 2.8 percent raise. Local 483's contract provided for the increase, which is retroactive to April 1. The collective bargaining agreement runs through March 31, 2012.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland answered residents who said that the raise should be denied, telling the News Tribune the city could be forced to answer in arbitration or could face an unfair labor practice charge from Local 483. "In either scenario," she said, "the city would be at risk of violating the contract and the obligation to bargain in good faith."

"There has been a flurry of organizing activity in Tacoma since the ordinance," says Local 483 Business Manager Alice Phillips, who chairs a health care bargaining committee for a seven-member union coalition that bargains with the city. "We're gearing up for a fight," says Phillips, who says that non-represented workers have asked the unions to hold the line on health care "because they know they are next if our members take cuts."

Phillips defended the raises for her members as making good business sense, not just a legal requirement. During Tacoma Power's wage negotiations, she says, the parties compare the utility's wage earners to their counterparts in four other companies in the I-15 corridor. They include: the Snohomish County Public Utility District, Seattle City Light, Avista in Spokane, and Puget Sound Energy, all represented by Seattle Local 77 and Portland Electric represented by Portland, Ore., Local 125.

Phillips told the News Tribune: the raises are intended to keep us in the market "so we don't lose the electricians. It's a very competitive trade, and they will go where they're valued. We could have a recruitment and retention problem very quickly if the wage disparity gets very big between Tacoma Power and the other companies."

The union's fight to defend its contractual rights is not over. An anti-union citizen activist has seized on a clause in the city's charter to call for a referendum on all labor contracts. "I believe his request is untimely and unconstitutional," says Philips, who has met with lawyers and is concerned that effective collective bargaining would be severely undermined if the city council no longer has the authority to reach a settlement at the bargaining table and every contract goes to referendum.