OPEIU Local 11 secures seven-year, no-layoff deal at NW Natural Gas

PORTLAND, OR -- In this age of mergers, utility deregulation and downsizing, Portland-based Office and Professional Employees Local 11 has been able to guarantee a no-layoff provision in its last three contracts for nearly 1,000 employees at Northwest Natural Gas.

The latest is a seven-year/no-layoff deal ratified by an 87 percent majority last month. Known as the Joint Accord, the new contract was preceded by five-year and three-year agreements guaranteeing no layoffs. Union members employed prior to April 1, 1997 are guaranteed their jobs until April 1, 2004 under the new pact.

"It may be the only contract of its kind in the country," said Gary D. Kirkland, executive officer and secretary-treasurer of Local 11, who negotiated the accord along with Rich Oare, Local 11 labor relations specialist, and chief stewards Jim Sullivan, Denise Paz, Mark Lilly, Karen Waterson, Boyd Phelps, Sherry Schafer, Bob Paz and Ron Clemenson.

In addition to the job guarantees, workers will get pension increases of 6 percent with full retirement at age 60 and medical insurance provided from age 60 to 65.

Wages will increase a minimum of 3.25 percent each year for the life of the agreement, with a "productivity compensation plan" that could boost wages from 5.5 percent to 7 percent based on a "key goals" format that includes profitablity, return on new customers, customer satisfaction, market share and productivity serving customers. Key goal targets are established at the beginning of each year by a joint labor/management committee.

If inflation increases more than 3.25 percent in the last three years of the contract, wage increases will be based on a formula in the Consumer Price Index -- up to 8 percent. Premium pay will increase for Saturday, Sunday and shift work starting Jan. 1, 1998. Employees also will maintain full maintenance of benefits for medical, dental and vision, with an increase in vision benefits on Jan. 1, 1998, and an increase in dental benefits on Jan. 1, 1999 for employees with dental preferred provider coverage.

The value of the entire package is $16.21 million, representing a 39.43 percent increase in wages and benefits over the life of the agreement, Kirkland said.

The Joint Accord has become a national model for labor-management relations in the U.S., with Kirkland and Mike McCoy, senior vice president of Northwest Natural Gas, sharing the concept with other businesses as guest speakers. Last month they made a presentation before officials and union representatives of the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization in Washington, D.C.

The need for a Joint Accord at Northwest Natural Gas was evident after the 1986 contract which gave employees a 1.75 percent wage increase over three years, Kirkland said.

Kirkland approached McCoy with an idea of each side trying to help the other succeed instead of spending all their energies promoting failure for each other.

"We have two basic fundamentals," Kirkland said. "Talk around the table instead of across it" and "focus on what's right, not who's right."

The transition has not been an easy one, but labor and management agree the rewards have been good.

"The accord benefits our members while assuring the future of the company," Kirkland said. "Real negotiating is gaining a living, saving wage and benefits today while looking ahead to make sure there will be a stable tomorrow."


May 2, 1997 issue

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