9/25/07

Bay area strike enters week 12

A week after Teamsters Union members hit the streets to protest Waste Management of Alameda County's lockout of East Bay garbage workers in July, another union representing workers at a nearby San Leandro heavy-duty repair company was gathering up picket signs of its own.

Just a few blocks away from where the garbage workers had staged numerous rallies, members of Operating Engineers Local 3, which represents heavy-duty repair workers at Valley Power Systems North, began picketing outside the company.

The union called a strike over what members said were unfair labor practices and the company's refusal to contribute to the union's health plan or pension and retirement health care funds. "All we wanted was what we had," said Local 3 member John Griffin.

Although the Waste Management lockout has long since been resolved, the strike at Valley Power Systems is still going strong, entering its 12th week today.

But the stalemate between the company and the union seems nowhere near an end. Workers have been picketing outside the company every day since the strike began July 10, and both sides have yet to come to an agreement.

As the weeks have progressed, the union has managed to get a number of agencies and officials behind their cause.

San Leandro Councilman Jim Prola, whose council district includes Valley Power, has joined workers on the picket line on several occasions. A West Sacramento councilman joined a recent solidarity rally at the state Capitol to protest the company's position. AC Transit and Alameda County Board of Education officials also have backed the union.

And, earlier this month, the Berkeley City Council passed a resolution to boycott the company.

The dispute over workers' benefits began in 2005, when Valley Power Systems bought out the former owner of the business, Stewart and Stevenson, which also had a facility in West Sacramento.

The company recognized the workers' union, which had represented employees for more than four decades, but also offered a number of employee benefits that competed with the union's contract.

Problems began when the company and the union began negotiating last year over the workers' pension fund, which at the time was suffering from a $1.3 billion unfunded liability, said company spokesman Kiley Russell.

Pete Figueiredo, a Local 3 district representative, countered that notion and said the real problems began the day Valley Power Systems took over and cut the company's workforce in half.

"Among other things, these employees that Valley Power purchased when it purchased that business had wage and fringe benefits that they worked hard for over the 45 years the union represented that shop," he said. "Then the company came in and said, 'That all goes away."'

Figueiredo said the company offered the union several options to offset the pension fund liability, but two of the options ultimately limited the amount of contributions workers could make.

The union then made an offer to the company, Figueiredo said, that basically allowed the company to monitor the workers' pension plan without making any immediate changes.

That offer, however, never materialized.

The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the union's unfair-labor charges, along with charges filed by the company. An employee with the company also filed a petition to the board to call for an election for decertification of the union, but that election has been blocked until the labor charges have been resolved.

(insidebayarea.com)

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