It is suspicious, at best, that none of the 40 linemen for the Turlock Irrigation District were available to respond this past weekend to power outrages that left dozens of people without electricity and, as a result for some, without water and plumbing. This is no way for the union to gain public sympathy in their contract dispute with the district.
Representatives of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were as evasive as the linemen after this story broke this week. The lone cryptic response on Monday was that the union would never formally or informally authorize a strike. That's not what happened in this case. This appeared to be a variation of the blue flu, with TID line employees refusing voluntary call back by not answering their phones. Even worse, some union members discouraged workers with other employers from making the repairs. Finally, Pacific Gas & Electric sent a crew that got the problems fixed. PG&E linemen also are part of IBEW Local 1245.
We see two problems with the union's strategy:
It will be hard to generate public support for workers who regularly make about $45 per hour, plus very good benefits, and would have been paid twice that for responding to a weekend call. The union's three-year contract expired at the end of 2011, but its provisions remain in effect until a a new contract is signed. Electrical line workers do important and potentially hazardous work, but they also are well paid for it. Their salaries add up to almost $90,000, not counting overtime, which make them very well paid in comparison with most of the TID's electrical customers.
As we know from the extreme heat wave of 2006, people can die if they go for prolonged periods without air conditioning or fans. We're not aware of anyone becoming sick as a result of the lack of cooling this past weekend, but the potential exists. Leaving people without power is more than a minor inconvenience.
The union and the district need to resolve their differences with a contract that includes fair pay for the employees but also assurances that the TID customers won't be left in the dark and in the heat again.