Decatur Utilities called several workers back from a trip to assist in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, but not because any union asked them to leave, DU General Manager Ray Hardin said Friday.
DU did have questions about whether its workers would have to affiliate with a union to participate in relief work and that factored into the decision to abort the trip, Hardin said.
A Huntsville television station’s report Thursday quoted a DU worker on the relief trip saying crews in New Jersey told the Decatur crew it wouldn’t be allowed to work because of its non-union status.
That report went viral, and Hardin even was interviewed on television by Fox Business.
But at a Friday afternoon news conference Hardin distanced DU from the union issue.
“At no time were our crews ever turned away,” Hardin said. “We have not had any direct contact with any union representation whatsoever.”
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — the union identified in the TV report as turning DU workers away — said it never had contact with DU or its employees.
“It is the policy of this union and the companies we represent to welcome assistance during major natural disasters, regardless of union status,” IBEW International President Ed Hill said Friday.
Hardin said he was surprised at the media coverage.
“I think an issue like this can be sensationalized and blown out a little bit because it’s election time,” Hardin said. “Union versus nonunion makes a lot of headlines, but it’s really not that issue at all. It was a logistics issue for us, trying to be sure we had a place for our folks to help out.”
The six crew members left Decatur on Wednesday and spent the night in Virginia. Their intended destination was Seaside Heights, N.J., but Hardin said DU managers struggled to contact officials in the town because of disrupted communications.
“Once we were finally able to get some information from them, we learned they may have enough help and didn’t need us anymore,” Hardin said.
Hardin said he does not know what utility provides power to Seaside Heights or whether it is unionized.
While the DU crew was in a staging area in Virginia waiting to see if its help was needed, an Alabama association of municipal electric companies — not affiliated with any union — provided DU with a 31-page contract. The contract, dated April 2011, is between a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a contractor. It does not reference DU or natural disasters.
The Montgomery-based Electric Cities of Alabama told DU officials they “may need to be looking at some documentation and requirements that may be placed on our employees,” Hardin said.
Hardin said he had some concerns about the document provided by Electric Cities.
“This was at the end of the day, so our folks had been stalled and not been able to proceed working at all that day,” Hardin said. “We made the decision late (Thursday) night to go ahead and bring our crews home.”
Hardin said his understanding from Electric Cities was that DU crews would have to affiliate with unions to work.
Electric Cities officials did not immediately return calls Friday.
DU issued a press release Friday morning stating “crews were held in place pending clarification of documents received from IBEW.”
“It was and continues to be our understanding that agreeing to those requirements was a condition of being allowed to work in those areas,” according to the DU press release.
Jerry Keenum, business director of the Alabama district of IBEW, said no there are no union requirements that would have prevented DU workers from assisting. He said the rush of linesmen to New England, combined with weather issues, was the only reason some workers were not able to help.
“This is not, in my view, a union versus nonunion issue,” Hardin said. “It’s more of a logistics issue, of us being able to get the right information at the right time. I understand there are many nonunion work forces all through the region helping with the restoration, and as far as I know they are working alongside other union forces without issues.”
Huntsville Utilities, which is not unionized, has crews working in Long Island, N.Y. Diversified Services of Hartselle, which is not unionized, has about 300 workers helping in the recovery.
“I’m surprised it’s turned into such a national attention-getter,” Hardin said.
George Kitchens, manager of Trinity-based Joe Wheeler Electric Corp., said he spent much of Friday being interviewed by national media figures from New York to San Francisco. According to the original story, republished on numerous Internet sites, Joe Wheeler employees also were turned back by unions.
In fact, Kitchens said, his crew went to Maryland last Saturday, completed its work without any problems, and has since returned.
“This is a huge story up in the storm area,” Kitchens said. “We had one investor-owned utility call us (Friday) to say that if we wanted to work up there, they’d welcome us with open arms.”
IBEW’s Hill said in a statement he was frustrated by the story.
“It is unfortunate that at a time when skilled line workers are working around the clock to help devastated communities, sketchy reports should cast a pall over these efforts,” Hill said. “The real story is that our members and others are working side by side to help people in New Jersey and all affected states get their power back and recover from the effects of the storm.”
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