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NLRB Charges Give Hope to Members at American Water


June 5, 2012

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The great writer Mark Twain once said, “Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.”

But what if a highly-profitable company that sells water to customers in hundreds of municipalities decides to cut health and retirement benefits to its work force—including members of five IBEW locals—no matter how many families will be hurt?

That’s the question facing American Water Co. and IBEW members in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri who have seen their deductibles and co-pays for health insurance skyrocket by 52 percent.

The company faces a hearing on National Labor Relations Board charges which contend American Water illegally imposed cuts in health insurance, short-term disability benefits and retiree healthcare. The last and final offer implemented by the company in January had been overwhelmingly rejected by members from all 19 unions at American Water locations.

If the NLRB orders a restoration of benefit cuts, the cost to American Water could be more than $4 million.

Seventy bargaining units representing 3,500 members of unions negotiate local contracts with American Water. But all health and retirement benefits have been negotiated nationally for several years, led by the largest union at American Water, Utility Workers Union of America.

Eleventh District International Representative Jim Lynch, who has participated in national negotiations with American Water since 2010 says while there are productive collective bargaining relationships in some municipalities, American Water’s top brass are a breed apart.  He says:

I have never seen a company at the corporate level have such total disregard for its employees. In my 25 years of experience in negotiations with the IBEW, I have never seen a greedier company.

IBEW members at American Water staff municipal water departments. They calibrate and change water meters, repair water main breaks, install new lines and maintain water treatment systems. Many worked for predecessors to American Water before the company expanded into new areas.

The NLRB charges that the company should have notified federal and state mediation agencies about their dispute with the unions. A hearing was scheduled for March, but was postponed.

Business Manager Matt Moore, Springfield, Ill., Local 51, representing plant operators and servicemen at American Water, says while new local agreements have been negotiated with the company, the benefit cuts are devastating.

Some of our members were paying $85 per month out-of-pocket for family medical benefits four years ago.  Now they are paying  $250 to $300 per month.

The company seeks concessions despite record profits and exorbitant compensation packages to top executives. During 2009, the board awarded nearly $7.5 million in total pay to only five top bosses.

The company’s former CEO is currently receiving severance payments of $49,000 a month.

American Water, which serves 15 million customers in more than 30 states and parts of Canada, has filed for major increases in consumer’s water rates, including a 13 percent increase in West Virginia, a 22 percent jump in Virginia and a 35 percent boost in California.

Some of the rate increases have been opposed by unions at American Water, winning more support from communities surrounding water facilities.

Last Summer, the UWUA worked with community groups in Trenton, N.J., to help defeat the company’s bid to take over the suburban water system there. Voters rejected the deal by a 4-1 margin, despite more than $1 million spent by American Water promoting the takeover.

Demonstrations, leafleting and job actions have been held at 13 locations in seven states and at the company’s headquarters in New Jersey in support of workers at American Water.

Says Lynch:

I’m hopeful that our complaint will be sustained by the NLRB, American Water will be forced to return to the original benefit levels and we can negotiate in good faith to resolve all benefit issues.

Locals representing workers at American Water include Springfield, Ill., Local 51; Indianapolis Local 1393; Joplin, Mo., Local 95; Kansas City Local 1464 and St. Louis, Local 2.