In union circles, they call it "burial insurance." That apt phrase denotes the severance, early retirement and re-training packages negotiated for veteran utility workers sideswiped by a changing market.
So far, labor has won some insurance: through legislation in California and in Maine; through a commission order in Massachusetts; and a pending settlement agreement in New York City, prompted by a commission order.
Labor lost hard in Pennsylvania and in Rhode Island, however. Worker protections weren't built into restructuring decisions in those states. One union official calls the Pennsylvania episode a "thief in the night."
The protection agreements, in most cases, give workers 24 to 30 months of guaranteed employment through the transition to a free, and often, divested market. Those not kept get a golden parachute.
For the rest of the nation, the future of worker protection promises to put labor through its paces and to test the political mettle of legislators and utilities.
Weighing the Costs
Changes from electric restructuring have cut roughly 25 percent of utility labor nationwide since 1990, says Jim Dushaw of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Between the IBEW and the Utility Workers Union of America, the two major utility unions, there are now about 270,000 collective bargaining unit employees. That's about 65% of the 413,000 utility workers nationwide, according to 1995 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.