At BGE, union vote likely is make or break IBEW's second try could be last if it fails

October 13, 1998|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

For the Washington union local that wants to become the first to represent Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers in the utility's 182-year history, today marks its second -- and possibly last -- chance.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1900 knows going in that balloting to decide whether 3,200 BGE employees will be represented by organized labor is sure to be a tough climb.

BGE remains one of only four major utility companies nationwide where workers are not represented by collective bargaining.

The company remains adamant that it must remain union-free to have the flexibility that will be required as the industry moves to one of less regulation and increased competition.

"I believe very strongly that in being union-free, we have a significant competitive advantage," said Christian H. Poindexter, BGE's chairman and chief executive, in a recent interview.

"The companies that are entering the market to compete against us are nonunion," Poindexter added. "Unions came into utilities in a different era. But we're not in that business anymore. They've not showed me a single thing that they would do to contribute to the financial success of this company."

The IBEW is banking on its multimedia campaign and a growing lack of job security in the company and the energy industry to win workers over.

A few years ago, utility workers could virtually count on guaranteed employment for life, with or without a union.

"The average person knows they work in a changing industry, and they want some stability," said Jim Hunter, president of the IBEW's Local 1900. "And no matter what the company wants to say, a contract does give you stability.

"Last time, people were so scared they wouldn't come to meetings, so all they got was the company's side of the story," Hunter said. "We were able to communicate more effectively this time." The IBEW also knows that the vote scheduled to start at 6 a.m. tomorrow and continue Thursday at 13 polling stations could "make or break" its chances at BGE.

A loss would mark the second time in as many years that the company has fought back the labor group's advances.

Union, NLRB charges

In December 1996, the IBEW suffered a devastating defeat when BGE captured 71 percent of the votes cast in the first union election held at the utility in 36 years.

The union later charged the utility with two dozen unfair labor practices that included coercing and intimidating employees.

In June, the National Labor Relations Board agreed, and charged BGE with 17 counts of violating federal labor law. The union later agreed to drop the charges if BGE, which denied the charges, agreed to a second election.

The NLRB is expected to announce the results of the secret ballot Friday.

Analysts -- and the union itself -- predict that if the IBEW is trounced in a similar 2-to-1 ratio, it will be forced to abandon its hopes of infiltrating BGE for years.

"If there is a resounding 'no' vote, we'll have to assume for a long time to come that the workers there don't want a union," Hunter said.

Job security

The IBEW, which also represents 2,700 Potomac Electric Power Co. employees, contends that union representation is necessary because it will increase morale, provide employees protection against arbitrary terminations and give them more involvement in corporate decisions.

Poindexter acknowledges that with deregulation, utilities are simply unable to offer the same kind of blanket job security as they had in the past.

"The union would have people believe that a contract provides job security," Poindexter said. "But we think a successful company provides job security. We just can't survive in a competitive environment if we have more people than we need."

BGE also contends that if the union comes in and forces wages up, the company in turn would have to re-evaluate a planned three-year rate freeze offered as part of a move to restructure Maryland's electric system.

While Poindexter added he does not anticipate layoffs, "I don't know what the rules [for the industry] are going to be in the future."

In 1994, BGE reduced its work force by 826 people largely through an early retirement plan, only the second time in its history that the utility had cut its number of workers.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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