NOLC opposes November ballot measure to create public utility district

The Northwest Oregon Labor Council, at the request of the International Brotherhood Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 125, has taken a position opposing the creation of a Multnomah County People’s Utility District (PUD).

Voters within the county will be asked to create a PUD during a special election scheduled Nov. 4.

“We are adamantly opposed to this initiative,” Bill Miller, business manager of IBEW Local 125, told the NOLC Executive Board. “This is not a question of public vs. private power. It is not a question of local control. That’s just the sales pitch. From our perspective, this ballot measure stems from individuals that have been after PGE for years and years, starting in the 1970s with nuclear power. It’s the same people.”

Miller said breaking up Portland General Electric (PGE) and Pacific Power and Light (PP&L) territories would not benefit customers or employees. He said the court cases and years it would take to break the two systems apart from their respective parent companies and then combine them into a single operating utility “would do nothing to save money for the consuming public.”

“We believe PGE must be left intact with its distribution, transmission and generation if it is going to continue to be a viable, operating utility, public or private,” he said.

Keeping PGE intact is of particular importance to the union following the bankruptcy of its parent company Enron. The union has filed grievances on behalf of members at PGE who lost tens of thousands of dollars from their 401(k) pensions. Local 125 represents 1,325 active and retired PGE workers.

Enron bought PGE in June 1997 and two years later merged the PGE employee 401(k) retirement plan with its plan, allowing employees to contribute up to 15 percent of their income and receive a company match in Enron stock. By 2000, Enron stock was trading at $85 a share and many employees were investing 100 percent of their contribution in it.

When the value of the stock began to plummet in 2001, employees were locked out from changing their 401(k) accounts and selling their Enron shares. [During that time, however, many executives were able to cash out their Enron shares for millions of dollars.] By the time they regained access to their accounts, an Enron share was worth less than $10.

Enron filed for bankruptcy in December 2001.

PGE countered the union grievances in court, claiming the pension loss (the union refers to it as theft) was not grievable and that Enron, not PGE, was responsible for the losses. The court ruled in PGE’s favor, but the union has appealed.

Miller told the NOLC Executive Board that the best chance to recover pension losses is by keeping PGE in the private sector.

“If voters agree to create a PUD we probably lose that fight (for pension recovery),” he said. “Our job now is to protect our members and what they’ve earned over the last 30 to 35 years.”

The pension issue aside, Miller said private sector utilities pay better wages and benefits and are more apt to subcontract work to union construction companies than are public sector municipalities and PUDs.

“Generally, speaking, we’ve not had a non-union line constructed on PGE or PP&L properties for 70 years,” Miller said, adding that public utility districts, by law, can’t commit to hire union shops when subcontracting work.

“Half our membership is in the public sector, and a lot of their subcontracted work goes non-union,” he said.

PUD supporters submitted the required 9,500 signatures last February to qualify the measure. On June 12, the Multnomah County Commission, by a 3-2 vote, placed it on the Nov. 4 ballot. Supporters have since challenged the ballot title. If adopted, it would create a PUD governed by an elected 5-person board of directors covering most of Multnomah County, excluding territory within existing Rockwood and Interlachen PUDs.

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