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The Union Label: Electric Restructuring's Hidden Side

Fortnightly Magazine - September 15 1997

UWUA's national representative. "That hasn't been part of the environment. Now the rules have changed."

Because the change is sudden and made by administrative or legislative fiat, not by an economic process, there should be a remedy, not a kick in the pants, the unions believe.

The unions don't expect much help from utilities in winning legislatively spun worker protections. That would mean utilities would have to recognize trained workers are needed for reliable systems, says Dushaw, the IBEW's utility department director.

"Unless the local union leadership steps forth and takes the political initiative, the utilities are not going to help us," he says. "They've got a problem enough having their stranded cost calculations accepted by state commissions ... to include a worker share in that, that kind of generosity just doesn't exist.

"No one really wants to publicly say we're going to discount the employees and plainly turn them out to pasture without consideration. I can't think of anybody who's actually saying that. It's just by non-inclusion that it occurs."

Maybe the utilities aren't ready for deregulation. Asked about worker protection leanings related to legislation, a representative of an 18,000-employee utility says he has to ask management. Later he says, "Their first reaction was, 'Well, it's really something we need to address and get a position on.' We've got a task force meeting next week."

Wood says unions aren't encountering much resistance from utilities over the issue. "Where the resistance is mostly going to come from is the large consumer organizations who just see this as another additive to their stranded costs," he says.

Casting a Safety Net

The six states with the most worker protection activity by mid-summer were California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and Ohio.

California. When it comes to worker protections, not much is contained in Assembly Bill 1890, California's restructuring legislation. But what's there is important, notes Wood (see sidebar). A few paragraphs in the bill were enough to move utilities and bargaining units to fleshed-out solutions. In early July, the Public Utilities Commission was reviewing packages negotiated between Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison (Docket No. R.94-04-031, Decision 97-06-060).

"They're probably going to end up being different types of agreements," Wood says.

Because PG&E deals with a single union, it will be easier for employees to move from job to job to stay on board. The utility wants to retain generation sector workers through the two years it provides operation and maintenance services to new owners. Required by AB 1890 to sell half of its fossil-fuel plants, PG&E has decided to sell all eight.

SCE, too, will sell double the plants mandated. The particulars of its employee protection agreement were in negotiations at press time. SCE union employees in California top 5,950 and after the two years of AB 1890 protection lapse, as many as 600 workers could be lost, depending on the evolution of the market, Wood noted. The SCE position will differ from PG&E's, because it plans to stay in the O&M business. "So [there] we're not really trying to get