Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. workers will decide whether to unionize for the first time in the company's 194-year history when they vote next month on membership in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The National Labor Relations Board will run two days of balloting on Dec. 16 and 17, the first union election at the Baltimore utility since 2000, when a similar attempt failed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. About 1,500 nonsupervisory BGE workers, including linemen and maintenance workers, are eligible to vote, said Wayne Gold, regional director of the NLRB office in Baltimore. That is about half of BGE's 3,200 employees.
Union officials have launched an organizing campaign with BGE workers, promising more job security and emphasizing the recent tumultuous corporate history of BGE parent Constellation Energy Group, which has tried to merge or find a buyer at least three times, albeit unsuccessfully, during the past 15 years.
Two years ago, Constellation agreed to a shotgun takeover by billionaire investor Warren Buffett as it faced a severe cash shortage that pushed it to the edge of bankruptcy. But in an about-face, Constellation terminated its deal with Buffett to sell half of its nuclear power business to Electricite de France for $4.5 billion, allowing it to remain an independent Baltimore-based company.
Each time a corporate shakeup seems possible, "there's no indication as to what happens to the employees," said John Holt, president of IBEW Local 1900, which represents utility workers at Pepco and Mirant Corp. Noting that in corporate America, top executives often have employment contracts, Holt said: "All the employees are looking for is a written contract for their jobs." BGE executives do not have employment agreements, according to the company.
"We're not promising anything as far as more wages or benefits," Holt added. "We're promising a contract and a place at the table to understand clearly how things are working with their livelihood."
Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr., BGE's president and chief executive, said in an interview Wednesday that union membership isn't necessary.
"Why are unions needed? They're needed for companies that don't treat their workers well, don't have quality leadership and don't have quality pay and benefits," DeFontes said. "We have a great leadership and a great team of employees who are compensated for their dedicated service."
DeFontes said BGE has been expanding its work force, hiring as it prepares for the retirement of older workers. And while BGE's new smart-meter technology will result in the elimination of about 100 meter readers when the program is fully implemented in 2014, DeFontes said management has been working with those employees to help them move into other jobs at BGE.
"Job security doesn't emanate from union contracts," he said. "It emanates from the success of the company."
BGE remains one of the few utilities in the country that is nonunion.
IBEW Local 1900 represents 1,700 members, according to the union's website. That is down from more than 2,330 members in fiscal year 2000, according to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
The decline mirrors falling union membership in the United States since 1983, when 17.7 million workers belonged to unions, according to the Labor Department. That fell to 15.3 million workers in 2009, when the number of union members declined by 771,000, reflecting higher unemployment amid the recession.
Support for unionization developed at BGE in 1993 when the company warned that it would have to reduce its work force to prepare for deregulation and, in its first-ever layoff, eliminated 1,100 jobs. The IBEW received enough support to hold union votes at BGE in 1996 and 1998.
In the 1996 vote, unionization was rejected by a tally of 1,864 to 790. In 1998, the company's victory was much narrower, 1,298-1,178. In 2000, workers at three divisions of Constellation, including BGE, rejected unionization, 1,441-758.
Each side is working to get its message out.
IBEW is holding meetings, sending fliers to workers and posting information on its website. BGE is trying to counter the union's campaign with supervisors sharing the company's arguments with employees.