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Unions seek clout at utilities


The incipient deregulation of the energy industry, which has created unprecedented competition and restructuring among area utility companies, is now contributing to another first: a never-before-seen level of union activity.

* At Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which has been union-free throughout its 179-year corporate history, some of the utility's 6,000 hourly workers have invited in organizers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

* Some of the approximately 60 workers at the Baltimore division of Trigen Energy Corp., which sends steam through underground pipes to heat downtown Baltimore buildings, are preparing to vote on whether to join the Baltimore-based Operating Engineers Local 37.

* After losing a representation election two years ago, the IBEW has restarted an organizing campaign at PECO Energy Corp., the giant Philadelphia electric utility.

* Some 1,100 members of the International Union of Gas Workers at Washington Gas Light Co. have been locked out since June 10 after rejecting work-rule changes the district-based company said it needs to face growing competition.

While each utility's story has its own special twist, industry officials, labor organizers and workers said that deregulation -- the slow erosion of the rules that have given many power companies monopolies -- is key to the turmoil.

As utilities downsize to prepare for competition, they've created an opening for unions eager to reverse the decline that has cut their share of the U.S. work force from 30 percent to 15 percent in the past 20 years.

BGE, for instance, in 1993 announced that to prepare for deregulation, it would have to reduce its work force and in its first-ever layoff eliminated 1,100 jobs.

That was quite a jolt for the utility, where its long history of generous treatment of employees has made it one of only four major utilities nationwide to operate without a union.

"The company took care of you. As long as you showed up and did a good job, you basically had a job for life," said one longtime worker.

Deregulation "is driving this whole organizing campaign," said the worker, asking not to be named.

The worker, who has attended some of the union's recruiting meetings, said the IBEW is now evaluating whether there is enough support at BGE to call for an election.

BGE officials say they realize that the changes have fanned workers' apprehension, but say they are fighting the organizing drive because of concerns that a union would slow the company's ability to adapt to change. And they believe history will be on management's side.

BGE's history

The last time a union tried to organize BGE workers, in 1962, the Utility Workers of America lost on a vote of 4,500 to 500, company spokesman Arthur Slusark said.

In a letter sent to employees, BGE Chief Executive Officer Christian Poindexter said he realized "the changes we've had to make over the past few years have been unsettling and have caused some of you to question whether BGE employees need a union."

But, he warned, changes will continue at BGE with or without a union. And, he predicted, a unionized work force would make it harder for BGE to compete with independent and nonunion power producers. "A union cannot provide job security," he warned.

BGE's story is being echoed across the industry, said Edward Bomsey, manager of employee relations at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry think tank.

Because they faced no competition and were guaranteed a set return by state regulators, utilities were long among the nation's most generous and most stable employers, he said.

But new unregulated companies, which often pay low wages and offer few benefits, are now being allowed to build power plants and sell gas and electricity, and utilities have responded to the competitive threat by slashing jobs and costs, he said. And some utilities that have broken the unspoken job security guarantee are seeing unprecedented levels of worker unrest.

"The reason is deregulation," he said "There is a great deal of concern about what the future is going to be."

Some utility workers say they just want to make sure they'll be treated fairly as deregulation unfolds.

At Trigen, for example, workers say they are looking forward to a newly competitive world, such as the company's pending sales battle with BGE over each company's plan to pipe icy water to office buildings for air conditioning.

"Some change is good," said one pro-union employee.

But some change isn't, he added.

Trigen has slowly been cutting back medical benefits, and a newly arrived manager has laid off some workers, he said. "People feel they need some type of security . . . the ability to negotiate and have respect," he said.

The Baltimore office of the National Labor Relations Board has been holding hearings this month on how many of the company's 60 workers should be able to vote in a representation election. An election has not yet been scheduled.

James Abromitis, who took over the Baltimore division of Trigen in May, has hired a New York law firm to help him fight the union because he believes Trigen pays well and unions' "restrictive work rules encumber a company and therefore make it noncompetitive."

'More targets to go after'

The turmoil in the industry has encouraged unions to organize even at some unpromising targets.

Two years ago, for example, PECO workers voted by a 2-1 ratio against joining the IBEW. But the union has asked the NLRB to oversee another election because continuing corporate cost-cutting has renewed worker interest in union protection, said Robert Detrick, an IBEW staffer helping with the campaign.

"They are laying a lot of hurt on these people," he said.

Deregulation has given the union, which dominates the utility industry, "more targets to go after," Mr. Detrick said.

PECO attorneys are challenging the IBEW election request before the NLRB. But even if the union wins a vote, said spokesman Michael Wood, the company is confident that employees will again overwhelmingly reject the union. "Remaining union-free is critical as we become more competitive," he said.

Some workers charge that companies are using deregulation as a smoke screen to slash their pay and benefits. Jim Mort, president of the locked-out union at Washington Gas, charged the company is using deregulation "as an excuse. Last year was the best in this company's history -- they earned nearly $60 million in profits."

Instead, he believes, Washington Gas managers are hoping to further increase profitability by intimidating employees into giving back hard-won benefits. The NLRB held hearings last week on the union's charges that the company's lockout was an unfair labor practice.

Company spokeswoman Lynn Scruggs insisted, however, that deregulation is no smoke screen and that the company has done nothing wrong.

In January, the Maryland Public Service Commission served the company notice that it would start to allow other companies to provide natural gas to some of the company's customers in the Washington suburbs, she said.

Washington Gas, which has dealt with unionized workers since the 1930s, is now battling the union over changes to work rules needed to allow managers to reassign workers during emergencies and slack times, she said.

"Competition is coming," she said. "We can't run our business the way we used to."

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