Impasse between PAWC, union enters second month

Dispute enters second month

July 9, 2014

Reports of pickets at Pennsylvania America Water Co.’s site in North Strabane Township Wednesday were unfounded.

“That’s a day late,” said Kevin Booth, president of Local 537 of the Utility Workers Union of America. “We picketed there all day (Tuesday). They’re in Uniontown (Wednesday).”

Three weeks ago, 144 UWUA workers walked off the job at Pennsylvania American in a labor dispute. This followed the issuance of what the company termed its “last, best and final” contract offer June 9.

The 144 were working under terms of a contract that expired in May 2011. They were employed at four sites in the Pittsburgh District – Bethel Park Distribution Center, Mount Oliver Meter Shop, and the Elrama and Hays Mine water treatment plants.

PAWC serves customers throughout most of Washington County, and parts of Allegheny and Fayette.

The two sides, of course, have different interpretations of the impasse. PAWC said it is a strike; the local said lockout.

“The union is calling this a lockout, and it’s certainly not a lockout,” said Josephine Posti, external affairs specialist for PAWC. “They’re on strike. You go on their website – they voted to strike a year ago. We anticipated and prepared for this.”

Booth countered, saying: “First and foremost, it is a lockout.”

The union maintains PAWC and its parent, American Water, established changes in working conditions since the contract ran out three years ago. Booth said the union filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board and that because there were changes, under Pennsylvania law, this should be considered a lockout.

One issue is whether PAWC can hire contractors to do work usually done by union employees.

“To maintain our normal level of service,” Posti said, “we’re working with a combination of local contractors as well as management staff, many of whom started careers within the union. Many are familiar with the work.”

Booth said pickets have been at the four Pittsburgh District locations “24/7 since June 18,” and have been at six other PAWC locations a total of “at least 23 times.”

Pickets may not have set up Wednesday at Pennsylvania American’s site in North Strabane – known as McMurray – but Booth said they have been there on four occasions. And will be there again, provided there is no quick settlement.

The local president does not anticipate that.

“The company is not interested in talking other than saying they have offered the union their last, best and final offer,” Booth said.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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