Tensions rising between NW Natural and union


NW Natural seems to be pressuring its union to settle a new contract before the existing agreement expires on May 31. 

Last month, the utility company informed union workers that it plans to train non-union staff to do their jobs in case there is a strike — even though Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 11 has not called for a walkout or taken a strike vote. 

“We are not even at an impasse, so I’m trying to figure that out,” said Local 11 rep Jordan Fosdick. “We have not implied anything about any kind of work stoppage.” 

NW Natural also told Local 11 that it will not pay union bargaining team members for their time at the negotiating table after April 19, even though NW Natural signed ground rules that say it will compensate workers for each bargaining session they attend. And managers sent an email to all union members asking them to take “voluntary unpaid leave” to “help our bottom line,” despite reporting record profits of $93.9 million in 2023.  

Local 11 represents about 600 workers at NW Natural, which is a regulated monopoly headquartered in Portland. The union started bargaining for a new contract in November and is calling for improved wages, retirement benefits, and health care coverage. 

In an email sent to workers on April 10, managers wrote that negotiations this year are taking longer than usual, and as the contract expiration nears, the company is “obligated to begin contingency planning.” 

“We respect the union’s role in advocating for workers,” NW Natural spokesperson David Roy said by email in response to a voicemail from the Labor Press. “As a critical utility, we are also obligated to provide safe and consistent service to our customers and the communities we serve. We are hopeful that we will soon come to an agreement that is good for our employees, our company, and our customers.” 

Fosdick said it’s not unusual for negotiations to extend past a contract’s expiration date. And in this case, the hold-up has been caused by NW Natural, Fosdick said: Managers are offering a lower wage proposal and outright rejecting some of the union’s requests.

“It’s going as fast as NW Natural wants it to,” Fosdick said. 

Local 11’s latest proposal is an 11% raise in year one and three annual raises of 4.5% after that (totaling 26.6%). NW Natural counter-proposed a 6.5% raise in year one and three 4.5% raises (21.5%). NW Natural also crossed out a Local 11 proposal to lower employee contributions for health insurance from 20% to 15%. 

Fosdick said union-represented workers at Cascade Natural Gas and Avista Energy — two other gas utilities — recently rejected their employers’ wage offers. International Chemical Workers Union Council/UFCW Local 121-C represents the Cascade workers, while IBEW Local 77 represents Avista workers.

Although Fosdick says he’s talked to NW Natural workers about the option to strike, Local 11 has not called for a strike authorization vote — the first step in organizing a strike. If workers do vote to strike, the earliest they would stop working is June 1, when the existing contract with a no-strike clause expires. 

Fosdick thinks the company’s email about training non-union workers was meant to scare union members into supporting a less robust contract than they deserve. 

“It did rattle a few of our members, but we were able to work with them and let them know that as a union, we are always willing to come to the table and negotiate until we reach a fair contract,” Fosdick said. 

Since then, members have donated money or paid time off to compensate bargaining team members for their time in negotiations because the company will not, Fosdick said. 

On April 18, Local 11 filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing NW Natural of bargaining in bad faith, breaking ground rules, and making coercive statements. Local 11 and NW Natural met for another bargaining session May 2, after this issue went to press. 



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