Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Water company union pickets over wages

by on August 09, 2014 10:59 AM

Striking union employees of the Pennsylvania American Water Company in the Pittsburgh district picketed the water company’s Indiana distribution shop Friday, prompting about 13 local workers to stay away from their jobs, too.

The picketers are members of Local 537 of the Utility Workers Union of America, who left their jobs in the Pittsburgh district June 18. Their employment contract expired May 17, 2011.

The Indiana-area employees of Pennsylvania American Water Company are also members of Local 537 but are under a different contract and are not on strike. Kevin Booth, Local 537 president, said the Indiana-area employees have a contractual right to honor the picket line if they choose to do so and not work without fear of repercussions.

Six pickets stood outside the water company’s distribution shop at 1909 Oakland Ave., White Township, on Friday with a large sign accusing the water company of unfair labor practices and violating federal labor law.

“Locked out!” the pickets’ sign proclaimed.

But the company, in a prepared list of responses to questions about the strike, contends the union employees are not locked out of their jobs.

“By labeling their strike action as a lockout, the UWUA Local 537 is attempting to influence decision makers at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry to award unemployment benefits to their members,” the company said in its statement.

Booth said the Pittsburgh-district employees are collecting unemployment compensation while picketing and the union has about a dozen unfair labor practice charges against the company that have either gone to the complaint process or are pending a decision by the National Labor Relations Board.

Three years of negotiations failed to produce a new labor agreement. During that time, Local 537 members worked under the terms and conditions of their old contract.

The company on June 9 implemented its last, best and final offer. Local 537, which represents about 144 water company employees in Pittsburgh, rejected the company’s offer and went on strike.

Booth said the union disagrees with the company’s claim that the negotiations had reached an impasse. Some progress was still being made in the talks, he said.

The company said that under its last, best and final offer, the union employees received a $2.20 per hour increase in their wages, and they will receive another 65-cent-per-hour raise in May 2015 and a 70-cent-per-hour hike in May 2016.

According to the company, in 2013, prior to its last and best offer, the average union employee salary in PAWC’s Pittsburgh district was about $67,000.

But Booth said the salary increases given by the company are misleading because for more than three previous years the union workers received no increases.

The strike, Booth said, is not about money but about job protection.

The company release assures customers they can count on continued reliable water service despite the union’s strike.

But Booth said customers should know that during the strike they may have to pay water bills that were estimated.

And Scott Detwiler, the union shop steward for the Local 537 members in Indiana, said the local employees’ decision not to cross the picket line could interrupt “normal distribution operations” around Indiana, including meter readings and water service turn-ons and turn-offs. That could create a problem if the workers are still off the job when thousands of Indiana University of Pennsylvania students return to off-campus housing in Indiana soon and many of them want their water connections turned back on, he said.

PHOTO: Picketers in front of the Pennsylvania American Water along Oakland Avenue Friday afternoon were, from left, Marge Gordish, Wayne Short, Tom Perman, Ken Dixson, Gene Herman and Scott Peterman. (Tom Peel/Gazette)

Randy Wells has been a reporter and staff writer at The Indiana Gazette since 1988. His regular assignments include coverage of the Indiana County commissioners, Indiana Borough council and the Marion Center Area School District. His email address is
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