The National Labor Relations Board is preparing to charge Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. with violating federal labor laws in connection with a December 1996 union vote, and is expected to force the utility to hold a second union election, sources familiar with the investigation said yesterday.
The NLRB's pending charges against BGE cap a more than yearlong investigation by the agency into more than two dozen alleged unfair labor practices, including that the company promised employees raises in exchange for rejecting unionization and fired workers who supported the organized labor efforts.
"We believe what BGE did here was extreme, especially when they offered their people money as a bribe to vote against the union," said Jim Hunter, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' Local 1900.
"They made a concerted effort to stop their workers from organizing, and did so at any cost," he added. "We weren't given the opportunity to have a fair election."
The NLRB began its investigation after the IBEW -- the union that fought unsuccessfully to break BGE's 180-year history as a union-free company -- filed complaints shortly after the vote.
In addition to pledging raises and firing workers, the IBEW claimed that BGE "interferred, restrained and coerced employees" prior to the vote, in which the union was defeated by a 2-to-1 ratio.
BGE has been adamant that remaining union-free is necessary for flexibility in a fast-changing power industry that is on the advent of deregulation and competition. "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," BGE Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Christian H. Poindexter said 14 months ago. "Remaining union-free gives us a distinct competitive advantage in that marketplace."
But BGE -- which spent upward of $40 million to defeat the IBEW, according to union estimates -- may have been overzealous in its desire to veto unionization.
In investigating BGE, the NLRB found that the company committed so many labor law violations before and after the December 1996 election that it initially considered issuing a so-called "bargaining order" against BGE, sources familiar with the investigation said.
An NLRB bargaining order would have automatically certified the IBEW as the official representative for 3,500 BGE workers. It could not be determined why the NLRB dropped consideration of the bargaining order.
Although the NLRB declined to comment on the investigation or its possible outcome, an agency official said he expects some movement in the case within the next month.
"At this point the charges are still under consideration, and I can't talk about an ongoing investigation," said Albert Palewicz, an NLRB regional attorney.
A BGE spokeswoman said the company wouldn't comment until after an NLRB complaint has been lodged.
"We are confident that we conducted a fair, truthful and legal campaign, and we look forward to resolving the matter once and for all," said Darcel H. M. Guy, a BGE spokeswoman. "The only reason for the union's allegations is that the IBEW didn't like the outcome of the election. Our employees overwhelmingly said they don't want representation."
Even the IBEW isn't overly optimistic that it could improve on its past showing, should the NLRB force another election.
"It would definitely be an uphill struggle," Hunter said. "Looking at the outcome of the last vote, it's discouraging. But if we have a fair election, that's all we can ask for."
Pub Date: 2/25/98