ST. LOUIS - American Water, the same highly-profitable nationwide utility that is trying to drastically raise rates on its St. Louis customers, and using workers from a non-union labor law-breaking company to try to replace its Utility Worker members here, is about to get hit with labor law-breaking charges of its own.
The Utility Workers said acting National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Lafe Solomon, the agency's top enforcement officer, believes American broke labor law by unilaterally implementing health care cuts in January. Solomon is expected to file charges against the utility in the next few weeks, the union reported on Dec. 5.
Some 3,400 unionists, from the Utility Workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Electrical Workers, the Operating Engineers, the Laborers, the Service Employees, the Plumbers and Pipefitters, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Steelworkers, got hit. The unions bargain jointly with American Water on a National Benefits Agreement, and represent the firm's workers not just in Missouri, but elsewhere.
"In November 2010, members throughout the country voted overwhelmingly to reject the company's demands for big cuts for workers while continuing big profits and big bonuses for bosses. In January 2011, despite our protests, American Water went ahead with the cuts. The company's unilateral cuts resulted in every member paying much more for healthcare with higher monthly contributions, higher deductibles, higher co-pays, and lower benefits," the Utility Workers explained.
Health insurance is a mandatory subject of bargaining under labor law.
The Utility Workers filed a complaint with the NLRB in April about the firm's actions. The agency probed the controversy and decided to issue the complaint, including a remedy that - if found guilty - American Water "must reimburse every union-represented employee for the economic losses he or she has suffered due to the company's unlawful implementation of cuts in healthcare and other benefits."
But health care isn't the only instance of American Water being involved with union busting. The Labor Tribune reports that American Water's Missouri subsidiary, trying to break Utility Workers Local 335 in St. Louis, hired non-union labor law-breaker American Directional Boring to install a water main in the northern St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights. Ordinarily, five-person crews of union workers install American Water's lines.
ADB had to settle the court case that involved IBEW Local 2 trying to organize the company. It was forced to pay $262,500 to 13 union supporters-almost a quarter of its workforce-that it illegally fired, the Labor Tribune said. The case dragged on for seven years. Despite the firm's plea to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ADB was found guilty of all charges leveled by Local 2 and the NLRB, including charges that it illegally threatened to close if the workers unionized.
In its ruling against ADB, which the court upheld, the NLRB said that the non-union firm engaged in "fabrication of evidence against union supporters [and] blatant and unconscionable actions" and that the company's manager "had no regard for the truth."
Utility Workers Local 335, which represents the water company's outside work crews, "is protesting this outrageous effort by American Water because the company unilaterally implemented a massive take-away contract that allows them to subcontract union work at will. The union is taking this issue to the NLRB," the paper said.
"American Water is using their ratepayers' money to subsidize a company that has a notorious record of union-busting, that's obvious by their record," said Local 335 President Tom Schneider. "Hiring this firm to do our work clearly defines the anti-union attitude of American Water," added the local's vice president, Al Ratermann. Even during the NLRB trial, ADB continued to fire union supporters, the NLRB decision notes.
On top of all this, American Water is trying to raise rates in the St. Louis area by 19 percent, the Labor Tribune said. The Utility Workers, community groups, and others filed protests with the state Public Service Commission against the rate hike plan. American Water earned $268 million in 2010 profits, the paper reported.
By Missouri law, the state commission is surveying American Water customers about the proposed rate hike. The paper is urging ratepayers to return the survey with strong opposition to the increases, to call the commission toll-free to "express your displeasure," and to directly complain to the president of the firm's Missouri subsidiary.
"Let all of them know as a ratepayer, you are not happy with Missouri American Water turning their backs on its veteran, experienced union workforce," the paper said.