Labor board lowers the boom on water company

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Saying American Water Works broke labor law by prematurely imposing its “last, best and final” national master contract offer, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) official ordered the firm to restore retiree health benefits and the health benefits and disability plan current workers had under their old contract.

In his Oct. 16 ruling, administrative law judge Steven Davis also told American Water’s bargainers to go back to the table and bargain a new contract, including those issues, with the Utility Workers and its other unions to replace the pact that ended in mid-2010. The firm’s national master contract covers 3,500 union workers in 15 states and 70 local unions. The Utility Workers are the lead union, with 2,500 of the workers.

Davis also said that if the company-imposed health plan cost workers more money in premiums, American Water would have to make them whole.

“This decision is another huge step in our efforts to win justice for American Water employees,” declared Utility Workers President Michael Langford. “We will continue challenging this company’s unfair attacks against working families until American Water learns that it is not above the law.”

American Water has had good relations with some of its union locals nationwide, but bad relations in St. Louis. It broke labor law by not notifying state mediation agencies that it had called in the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to observe when talks hit a snag. The snag was over the rising cost of health care.

As the side that began the talks for a new pact, a year before the old one expired, American Water had to tell the states about the mediation request, Davis said.

Labor law “is unequivocal,” Davis wrote. “It provides the duty to bargain includes serving written notice upon the other party to a collective bargaining agreement of one’s desire to terminate or modify it, with notice also to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the appropriate state agency.”

National Labor Relations “Board authority is also unequivocal. Failure of a party desiring to terminate or modify a collective-bargaining agreement to give appropriate notice” under that section of labor law “precludes it from altering terms or conditions of the collective-bargaining agreement,” Davis added.

Davis’ ruling covers workers and retirees at American Water and subsidiaries in California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Photo: UWUA member at the Detroit labor day parade. Image via the union’s Facebook page.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.