N.H. Utility Employees Score First Contract Wins
December 18, 2013
|Manchester, Maine, Local 1837 Assistant Business Manager Tom Ryan, left, congratulates member Tom Eaton on his contract victory. Eaton is a shop steward at the Public Service Company of New Hampshire. Photo credit: Sue Ekola.
When workers vote “union yes,” it’s often a hard-won victory. But tougher still can be the path to a first contract, where the skills of newly-minted activists are put to the test against the possibility of continued company resistance and difficult negotiations.
Recently in New Hampshire, workers at two major utilities successfully teamed with IBEW organizers to win their first collective bargaining agreements.
“The negotiations process is where you really see the solidarity of new members come alive,” said Manchester, Maine, Local 1837 organizer Matt Beck, who helped organize employees at Unitil Service Corp. and the Public Service Company of New Hampshire.“The campaign to win a National Labor Relations Board election can have its challenges, but getting that first contract is where the rubber really meets the road in terms of everyone moving forward together.”
Electric system operators at Unitil ratified an agreement in August that locks in higher pay, improved health insurance coverage and a better vacation scheduling policy. The contract covers five employees who run dispatching and help oversee grid operations for customers in the seacoast area near Portsmouth, N.H., and further west toward the state capital in Concord.
“Vacation scheduling in the contract means we can take time off when we want to take it, not just when the company says we can,” said Local 1837 member Mike Pouliot, a system operator at Unitil.
Local 1837 has several dozen members at sister company Unitil Energy, where employees ratified a new contract last year. That familiarity between Local 1837 Assistant Business Manager Tom Ryan and Unitil managers helped the recent effort. “Tom and our Business Manager Dick Rogers sat across the table from the same Unitil representative for this new contract,” Beck said. “Overall, our relationship is going well. As our members continue to do the high-quality work they’ve always done and prove that this is a win-win, our partnership will be even more productive.”
Local 1837 also helped four workers at the Public Service Company of New Hampshire secure their first collective bargaining agreement in November.
Local 1837 already represents about 450 employees at the utility. The negotiating committee petitioned to have an “Armour-Globe election” for the new four-member unit, which effectively grandfathered the members into the larger group’s contract. From there, Beck said, gains for the workers – three building mechanics and a building attendant – came immediately. The members are now locked into a reliable wage schedule and are enjoying a better work/life balance that the contract provides.
“A lot of first contracts are good initial steps because you get your foot in the door,” Beck said. “But by winning an Armour-Globe election, these members are now getting the benefits of a mature contract that has been in place for many years.”
Such an election was established by the NLRB following legislation during the New Deal era. “In many cases, if you are organizing a company where you already have members, you can petition to have them join the larger bargaining unit,” Beck said. Local 1837 leaders did this, and the members voted unanimously in favor of joining. “Petitioning for an Armour-Globe election is a tactic that I think organizers could use to greater success in their campaigns across the U.S.”
PSNH building mechanic and Local 1837 shop steward Tom Eaton said his co-workers have been looking forward to ratifying a contract since voting to organize last June.
“We’re pretty excited to start to enjoy the benefits that our co-workers share,” said Eaton, who served on the negotiating committee. “Working with the guys at the hall made it easy for us. It was smooth and everybody on both sides was very cordial.”
Employees at both Unitil Service Corp. and PSNH expressed thanks to Beck, Ryan and Rogers for their assistance.