Several union gas line workers for Dominion found themselves locked out this morning when they arrived for work.
915 of these workers, all members of United Gas Workers Union (UGWU) Local 69 in Virginia and surrounding areas, were locked out as part of an ongoing labor contract dispute between Dominion and UGWU Local 69.
The lockout began at 12:01 a.m. this morning.
“It’s not a strike, union members are ready and willing to work. We proposed to the company in fact, that we would agree not to strike during negotiations, in return for us not being locked out. They actually have locks on the gates at the facilities. They have corporate security people there – security guards – turning people around,” said UGWU Local 69 Executive Officer Connie Baston.
Baston also stated that a nearby West Virginia facility impacted by the lockout was roped off with caution tape.
The previous labor contract between Dominion and UGWU Local 69 expired on April 1, and both parties have worked unsuccessfully to broker a new agreement, according to a Dominion release.
According to Frank Mack, a Communications Project Manager for Dominion Transmission, the decision to do the lockout was done as a preventative measure, to ensure that their customers had consistent service.
“Our focus right now, our top commitment, is to ensure that we continue to deliver natural gas in a safe, reliable manner to our customers,” said Mack.
In Prince William, Dominion Transmission has a 14-mile stretch of pipeline that runs natural gas to the Possum Point Power Station in Dumfries, which generates power for the area’s electrical grid. Dominion also has a pipeline that runs from Loudoun to Quantico on the Prince William border, and they operate a metering and regulation station there.
Concerns about a strike lead to a lockout
Mack said that there was a tentative agreement between Dominion and UGWU Local 69 that was made on August 26, which he said that the union agreed to support and present to their members. According to Mack, that’s not what happened, the result of which led to the lockout.
“Well they did neither. They ended up not taking it at all, and we felt that with a fear of a work stoppage – that they could call a strike at any time – we did not want to put our customers in a position where they would be vulnerable. Because with the winter heating season coming, that’s when they need us most – on the coldest days of the year – so we decided to lockout Local 69,” said Mack.
According to Baston, this isn’t an accurate depiction of what took place, as she said that UGWU Local 69 had agreed not to strike while negotiations for the labor contract were ongoing.
“Our number one priority is public safety, and it was instrumental in our decision to offer the agreement not to strike,” said Baston.
What are they fighting over?
During negotiations for the new labor contract for UGWU Local 69 gas line workers that are employed by Dominion, there were two sticking points that have led to the lockout; Dominion’s proposed elimination of retiree medical insurance, and replacing the existing pension program with a cash-balance pension and enhanced 401(k) savings plan for all new hires.
According to a Dominion release, the tentative agreement offered “a nearly 11 percent base pay raise over four years and company-paid pension and retiree health benefits for all current employees. This tentative agreement also gives Medicare-eligible retirees a stipend to buy additional coverage that best suits their needs rather than be forced into the existing one-size-fits-all plan. Employees hired on or after January 1, 2017 would not be eligible for retiree medical benefits.”
“What we heard from them…is that corporations are going to this now, and they just want us to accept this. We feel that it will create a two-tier system for our union,” said Baston.
Baston also stated that switching to a cash-based pension plan is problematic because it “probably represents a decrease of about 40% [in value].” Mack asserted the claim that the switch would lead to a 40% decrease was inaccurate.
According to Mack, Dominion’s goal with the proposed changes to the labor contract is to provide the employees with good benefits, but to also ensure that the company stays competitive.
“The struggle is, we feel that it comes down to an issue of fairness, because we want these employees to have a fair contract, but we also want our customers to have – they deserve – one that keeps the costs competitive,” said Mack.
Mack went on to state that what Dominion has offered to UGWU Local 69 workers is what’s being offered throughout the company, and that a local branch of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers accepted the same deal two weeks ago.
“What we have offered Local 69, as it relates to pension and retiree medical, it’s the same thing that current new hires have had throughout Dominion, not only Dominion Transmission and Dominion Hope, [but also] another union in Virginia that has more than 3,000 union members…we feel it’s fairness, consistency,” said Mack.
Until an agreement is reached…
Until an agreement is reached between Dominion and UGWU Local 69, contracted workers have been brought on by Dominion to continue operation of the gas lines.
Mack was confident about the competence and qualifications of the workers being brought in during the labor dispute.
“We have well-qualified people who are operating the system, and we’re confident that they’re going to continue to operate the system safely and reliably,” said Mack.
But Baston was skeptical.
“We feel that we have a highly skilled workforce that is taking care of these gas lines, and we’re concerned about the safety…I don’t know how they could bring some people in without the proper training, that we feel that our employees certainly have,” said Baston, stating that some UGWU Local 69 workers have been with Dominion for more than 40 years.
Baston also asserted that per the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) guidelines, Dominion’s decision to conduct the lock out is illegal.
While the NLRB does not outline the legality of specific situations like this, Section 8(a)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act does state that to “discharge, constructively discharge, suspend, lock out, lay off, fail to recall from layoff, demote, discipline, or take any other adverse action against employees because they support the union or engage in union activities,” is in violation of the Act.
Both parties expressed that they’re hopeful that an agreement can be reached, and Mack said that Dominion is still maintaining a good working relationship with the union.
According to a UGWU Local 69 release, Dominion will be meeting with the union and a federal mediator tomorrow at 12 p.m.
Several union members are picketing due to the dispute, according to Baston.