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Unions: Odd Man Out?

Fortnightly Magazine - June 1 1996


being adhered to.

"Downsizing has taken some of the brightest and talented people, even among management and middle management, not just union people. Those people have left, leaving the system, I think, somewhat vulnerable. . . . In Boston, you have an old antiquated system, an underground system with somewhere around 13,000 to 15,000 manholes, built on the ocean. The people who know that system are really older workers. . . . I think [their leaving] hurts the system."

s Harmony

"We have been doing it for a number of years. . . . In 1986, we had a strike over at Boston Edison Co. over the whole issue of safety and health in the workplace. . . . Most of the issues dealt with things you would have thought the company would have wanted. . . . We tried to do it across the table at the collective bargain level.

"We had a tough underground system out there and we'd address the problems only when something broke. We had several fatalities during the 1980s that raised our level of consciousness to 'Act now rather than wait for these problems to happen.' Not only did this benefit the worker, it would benefit the customer.'"

s Working It Out

"On stranded investment, we're eye to eye on some things. Except that we believe if there is any stranded investment, it must include the stranded human investment of the workers.

"We haven't been eye to eye with companies on a lot of these issues because we haven't been sitting down and negotiating with them across the table. We are now becoming very outspoken on it, and setting up some strategies ourselves where we can work with companies. And we haven't defined all those places yet. Unfortunately, up to this point the only ones who have been heard from have been the proponents of competition, restructuring, deregulation."

s The Future

"Bargaining is going to be very difficult over the next several years unless management and companies can get together on this entire issue. The solution isn't downsizing their entire workforce. . . . In the utility industry, everybody agrees the cost of labor is probably the least-expensive cost. Labor is around 10 percent. So if you laid off half your workforce, that's not going to affect the electric bill at all. Both parties [need to] realize that if competition is here, we'd best prepare for it . . . . [The answer] may be in retrain-ing and doing things a little differently." t

Donald E. Wightman is national president of the Utility Workers Union of America/AFL-CIO, based in Washington, DC. The UWUA represents some 50,000 employees in the gas, water, and electric utility industries in the United States. Wightman has held office since January 5.


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