OPEIU Local 11 wants big changes at NW Natural

By MALLORY GRUBEN

Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 11 started bargaining Nov. 2 with NW Natural, a regulated monopoly that employs about 600 Local 11 members. Local 11’s largest contract, it covers office staff and outside gas and construction workers and expires June 1, 2024.

Local 11 wants major improvements this time around. It’s proposing that NW Natural stop outsourcing to non-union contractors, re- enter the union pension plan, improve the company 401(k), preserve health benefits, and raise wages to keep up with inflation.

Local 11 Executive Secretary-Treasurer Howard Bell said NW Natural contracted out several leakage inspection jobs to Texas-based Heath Consultants, even though Local 11 represents leakage inspectors who could have done the work. Leakage inspectors are among the top-paid workers at NW Natural, with wages starting at $35.28 an hour; Heath Consultant starts them at $19 an hour.

Local 11 wants NW Natural to re-enter the Western States OPEIU Pension. NW Natural withdrew from the pension plan in 2013 when the plan entered “critical status” and appeared to be nearing insolvency. But in 2021, the federal government approved a pension rescue plan that restored the pension to full funding. The union pension plan would be in addition to the 401(k) the company already offers.

“We just want our employees to retire with dignity,” Bell said.

Local 11 will also ask for double-digit raises, but Bell said it was too early in negotiations to share a specific number. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of goods and services rose 18.7% between December 2019 and June 2023, the time frame covering raises in NW Natural’s current contract. In that same period, wages in the contract rose 14%. And Bell said workers’ loss in purchasing power pre-dates that because their 2009-2014 contract raised wages just 1% a year.

Since at least 1989, Local 11 and NW Natural have set “ground rules” that prohibit negotiators from publicly sharing information about bargaining — even with union members — until the sides reached a tentative agreement. This year, Local 11 insisted on its right to freely share stories from the bargaining table with members, Bell said. NW Natural workers with questions about the contract or negotiations can contact the union’s lead negotiator, union rep Jordan Fosdick.

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