By Michael Gutwig, Editor & Manager
Nearly 100 Pacific Power workers walked an informational picket line March 17-18 at the company’s headquarters in Northeast Portland’s Lloyd District.
About 316 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 125 have been working under the terms of a contract that expired in January. The bargaining unit is comprised of linemen, service coordinators, meter readers, substation wiremen and more who work in a region that extends from Astoria, Ore., to Walla Walla, Wash.
Pacific Power is a regulated electric monopoly that serves over 700,000 customers. It is the electricity distribution division of PacifiCorp for Oregon, Washington and California. PacifiCorp is owned by Mid-America Energy Holdings Co., which is controlled by Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway’s primary shareholder is Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest people. The company earned nearly $3.5 billion in gross profits during 2014.
In 2011, workers were mobilizing for a Labor Day strike when a new collective bargaining agreement was reached and ratified. It was a close vote though, and many workers weren’t happy with the freezes and takeaways that were part of the pact.
“Over the last three contracts, it’s been all takeaways,” said Randy Jamison, a 30-year employee.
The Great Recession of 2008 had a big impact on bargaining. Union members walking the informational picket line March 18 told the Labor Press they were willing to concede on some issues in order to help the company get through a difficult economy — and save customers from a threatened rate hike.
“Today, the economy is in much better shape, and the company has solid earnings,” said Travis Eri, business manager of Local 125. “Workers need to get a little bit of what they gave up, back.”
Berkshire bought PacifiCorp from Scottish Power in 2005. Since then, the new owner has reduced family sick leave days, eliminated the defined benefit pension plan in favor of a 401(k) savings plan, and increased health insurance premium co-pays from a 90-10 (employer-employee) split, to 80-20, and more recently to 74-26. Additionally, higher deductibles are taking even more money out of workers’ pockets.
As a result, Eri says Pacific Power has the lowest wage and benefits package of any utility in IBEW Local 125’s jurisdiction.
This race to the bottom is driving down the pool of skilled linemen at the company — the ones who perform high-risk work directly on the electrical system, including high-voltage transmission and distribution lines.
Several union members walking the informational picket line told the Labor Press that veteran linemen are leaving for jobs at other utilities, and that newly-minted journeymen coming out of the apprenticeship training center are going to work for everyone but Pacific Power. The high turnover rate has led to lots of forced overtime — from 400 to 600 hours a year.
“Berkshire has no blood, sweat or tears invested like we do,” said Brian Penfield, a 20-year employee. “We’re losing a lot of talented younger guys who see no reason to stay here,”
Bargaining has been ongoing since September. Talks have narrowed down to wages and medical. Eri said there are no takeaways currently on the table, but wage increases don’t come close to making up for the concessions workers have taken in the past.
At press time, the sides were in their second day of bargaining with a federal mediator. There was no word on how those talks were going.