The Electrical Worker online
August 2015

Labor Dept. Launches Investigation into
Firing of U.S. Workers
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The U.S. Labor Department said it is looking into Southern California Edison and two India-based outsourcing firms for potential labor and immigration violations.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the federal government is investigating whether SCE complied with the law when it fired nearly 500 information technology workers and replaced them with foreign workers brought into the country with H1-B work visas.

The H1-B program allows companies to hire high-skill foreign workers as long as it "will not adversely affect the working conditions of [U.S.] workers similarly employed."

Workers who did not train their replacements or spoke publicly about the firing were threatened with loss of severance.

For Diamond Bar, Calif., Local 47 Business Manager Pat Lavin, even though the fired workers were not members, their firings demanded action, particularly in light of difficult contract negotiations between the company and utility workers represented by the IBEW. After decades of positive labor-management relations, rising stock prices and 13 consecutive years with annual profits above $1.75 billion, SCE hired a notorious anti-union lawyer to lead talks.

"SCE seems to have forgotten what makes them profitable: their people," said Lavin, who is also a member of the International Executive Council. "The fired workers were forced to train their replacements and forced to be quiet by a company that held all the cards. Just because they are not IBEW members doesn't mean we won't speak up for them. Someone had to."

Local 47 members set up informational pickets at several SCE locations, demanding they reverse course.

Financial disclosure forms uncovered by the Economic Policy Institute say the foreign workers will make, on average $50,000 a year less — not including benefits — than the average salary of the U.S. workers they are replacing. Only 30 percent of the outsourced work will be done in the U.S. by foreign workers. The rest, SCE reported, will be done overseas. Those salaries have not been released.

"This is a local utility built by Californians for Californians. For this highly profitable company to turn its back on the people who built it is revolting," Lavin said. "The only real positive is that we actually have some leverage as a union and as citizens of California to try to turn this back."

When the firings came to light this spring, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., expressed alarm. Letters requesting an investigation were sent to the Department of Labor signed by representatives and senators from both parties.

In a public statement, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said, "SCE ought to be the tipping point that finally compels Washington to take needed action to protect American workers."

Despite the calls, the Department of Labor Solicitor General M. Patricia Smith said there was insufficient grounds for an investigation. Unless someone directly affected by the firing complained, there was, she said, nothing they could do. And since the severance packages of most fired workers were contingent on their silence, that seemed to be the end of it.

Local 47 Steps Up

"That was [not good enough]," Lavin said. "I called up our lawyers and we took a close look at the law and decided together there was more that we could do than keep our picket alive."

Lawyers for Local 47 sent a letter to the Los Angeles District Office of the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division.

"Local 47 and the employees it represents constitute aggrieved parties," they wrote. "Indeed, many employees represented by Local 47 work regularly with SCE's former IT employees and are dissatisfied with the technical support services provided by their replacements … Local 47 is concerned that SCE's continued use of these replacement IT employees will therefore jeopardize the work of the employees it represents."

The labor department never responded to the IBEW's letter, but a short time later it announced an investigation was underway. In a June 10 statement, the Department of Labor reversed course.

"The Department has recently opened investigations related to Tata and Infosys's provision of H1-B workers to SCE," the statement read.

It was a victory. Of sorts.

"Finally an investigation." Lavin said. "But until those jobs are returned to the people who lost them and no Americans again lose their jobs to an ill-thought out immigration scheme, this is just hand waving."

It may be only that. The way the law is written, the layoffs are legal if replacement workers are paid more than $60,000.

"It is a [terrible] law," Lavin said. "It should be a wake-up call to every middle-class knowledge worker that thought they were somehow safe because they did the smart thing and got educated. Everyone is at risk of being replaced when everyone stands alone. My hope is that every IT worker who lost their job, whether their replacement is sitting in their former cubicle or a world away, gets their job back and the next day they vote to join the IBEW."


Members of Diamond Bar, Calif., Local 47 protesting Southern California Edison's replacement of U.S. workers with foreign contractors using H1-B visas.