Two Strikes In One — Electrical and Labor

Two Strikes In One — Electrical and Labor

August 8, 2002

Virginia Dominion Power faced multiple storms this past weekend. Mother Nature's have passed on through. The manmade one is still brewing.

In the midst of some of the worst summer storms to hit the area this year, Virginia Dominion Power employees went on strike Saturday for the first time in 38 years. Leaving their jobs to join the picket lines were linemen, electricians, meter readers and others in three states served by Dominion Resources Inc.

Just before the strike, violent electrical storms pummeled the area on Thursday and then made a return visit on Saturday. Both storms knocked out power for approximately 18,000 Virginia Dominion customers each time, according to Le Ha Anderson, the company's community/media relations manager.

"The first storm took its toll in Woodbridge, Springfield and the southern part of Alexandria, along the Route 1 corridor," Anderson explained. "There were about 18,000 people without power.

"One of the hardest hit was the Mason Neck area, where we had downed power lines from falling trees, broken poles and broken cross arms. Most had their power back on by Saturday afternoon. Just in time for the next storm."

ONE OF THOSE without power from Thursday until late Saturday afternoon were Rita and Michael Smith of Potomac Road in Mason Neck. "There wasn't much actual damage," Rita Smith said. "We lost some plants with falling branches. My one neighbor had a shed crushed by a falling tree, and another lost part of their fence."

As for the loss of food, with no power for the freezer, Smith said, "We didn't lose much because we didn't open the refrigerator. I lost some things, like ice cream, and threw out some frozen fish that seemed a little soft, just to be safe."

In the Saturday storm, others weren't so fortunate. There were two storm-related deaths, one in the District, when a tree fell on a passing car, killing a passenger in the rear seat, and another in Maryland, where a resident was struck by lightning while sitting on his porch. In Springfield a townhouse roof was set ablaze by a lightning strike.

THE LABOR STRIKE is taking far less toll, according to Anderson. "We had developed contingency plans in case of a strike, and the contingency work force was activated as soon as the work stoppage occurred," Anderson said.

"The plan has worked very well for our customers, thanks to both the union leadership and our management. But the bottom line is that we want these workers to come back to work. We're hoping this can be settled quickly," she emphasized.

According to Anderson the contingency plan calls for non-union, salaried employees, managers and independent contractors to perform the duties of those on strike. "The salaried employees and managers were pretrained in various jobs in preparation for a potential strike. The outside contract is with electrical contractors who are experienced in our needs," Anderson clarified.

As of Monday afternoon the dispute had been turned over to a federal mediator, Anderson confirmed. "The mediator has control of the process at this point," she said.

There are two primary issues to the strike, according to Anderson. One has to do with the amount of medical premiums to be paid by the company, and the other deals with a special retirement account.

Local 50 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — which represents about 3,700 workers in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina — contends the company's latest proposal would cut retirement benefits and increase health-care premiums for retirees. The dispute began in January.

DOMINION HAS proposed a five-year contract that includes a 16.5-percent wage increase, a health-care benefits plan that doubles life benefits to $2 million, adds chiropractic coverage, and increases dental and vision coverage. The company maintains this package would bring this group in line with their other 13,000 employees.

Union representatives contend the package eliminates $15 million in bonuses and cost of living (COLA) adjustments in pension benefits earned after Jan. 1, 2003. In the latter case, Dominion has offered to replace the COLA adjustments with a retirement account funded by the company and payable to the employee at retirement based on 2 percent of the employee’s pay at that time.

"Union representatives want that to be raised to 4 percent of the employee’s base pay," Anderson explained. "That would not be fair to our other 13,000 employees who are at the 2-percent rate."

Anderson assured that the bottom line for the company is "always service to our customers. So far we have been able to handle these storms and the strike. We hope to continue that until the strike is settled," she insisted.