BGE employees veto unionization Setback seen fueling union's effort as Pepco merger looms

December 21, 1996|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

In a vote that could signal the fate of organized labor in the electric utility industry of the future, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers overwhelmingly rejected a unionization drive by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

The 1,864-to-790 tally, concluding a two-day election held by the National Labor Relations Board, ensures that BGE will retain the nonunion status that has endured at the nation's oldest utility for nearly two centuries.

"I consider this to be a major victory for our employees, our customers and for our future," BGE Chairman and Chief Executive Christian H. Poindexter said.

"In the emerging energy market, the companies that are much more likely to be successful are those that can retain and attract customers by keeping their rates low and offering superior products, services and reliability," Poindexter added. "Remaining union-free gives us a distinct competitive advantage in that marketplace. That's why it was so important that our employees reject union representation."

BGE's victory also presages an arduous campaign for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union that had attempted to represent the utility's employees, to organize Constellation Energy Corp.

BGE and the Potomac Electric Power Co. -- 2,800 of whose employees are represented by the IBEW -- intend to form Constellation Energy next April, creating the nation's ninth-largest utility with more than $15 billion in assets.

Prior to the merger, the IBEW is expected to seek another election for collective bargaining for the 7,200 potential union employees there.

Union analysts had predicted that the outcome of the BGE election would represent a harbinger for a vote at Constellation Energy. In fact, the entire utility industry, which is facing a sea change of competition and deregulation, was seen as closely watching the vote.

BGE's Poindexter has said repeatedly that the company must maintain its nonunion status to combat competition from other utilities and to provide flexibility for customers.

BGE is one of only four major electric utilities that is nonunion. The others are Carolina Power & Light, New York's Rochester Gas & Electric and Peco Energy Corp. of Philadelphia.

"The outcome shows how extremely difficult it is for a union to organize a company that is willing to spend any amount of money to defeat it," said James Hunter, president of the IBEW's Local 1900.

The IBEW estimates BGE spent between $30 million and $40 million on a California consulting firm, attorney's fees and other expenses to defeat the union effort, which resulted in the first election at the company since 1962. BGE described the amounts as "absurd figures" but declined to provide an exact sum.

'Fight is not over'

John J. Barry, IBEW International President, said the union vows to pursue the organization fight and unfair labor practice charges against the company before the NLRB.

"The fight is not over," Barry said. "BGE has not heard the last from us."

Hunter predicts, however, that Constellation Energy will be easier to organize because of the core of union support already at Pepco. "The odds flip-flop in our favor," he said.

The IBEW now has seven days to challenge the BGE election, said Louis D'Amico, the NLRB's regional director. If a protest is filed, the NLRB will review the complaint to determine its merit and possibly proceed with hearings.

"Personally, I just didn't feel that that union was working in our best interests," said Irv Betch, an energy services technician at BGE's Woodlawn facility. "It would have hampered our ability to compete, our level of customer service and it would have added unnecessary rules and regulations."

Pub Date: 12/21/96

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