Turlock Irrigation District, union conflict comes to head

10/03/2012 2:32 PM

10/03/2012 11:46 PM

It's still not clear precisely what happened over the weekend when the Turlock Irrigation District couldn't reach its line workers to handle power failures.

But it has become apparent that the tension between the line workers and the board they are negotiating with for a new contract has spilled over into the public, and that can be dangerous.

"People don't forget these things easily," said Chris Sablynski, associate professor of management at the University of the Pacific. "It's a troubling situation I can see from both sides."

Sablynski, who said he has no knowledge of the specific negotiations at TID, spoke generally Wednesday about strife between unions and management.

Customers were left without power when one power line went down Friday and a second Saturday, and the 40 line workers could not be reached. Requests for help from the Modesto and Merced irrigation districts were unsuccessful, so the Turlock utility turned to private crews.

A crew from Visalia agreed to help, but left Turlock after talking to a local line worker and then checking with the union, according to TID management. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers represents line workers throughout the state, including those with the Merced and Modesto irrigation districts and private contract companies.

Union officials said they did not formally or informally authorize a strike. Call-backs are voluntary, but TID never has had a situation where it could not put together an emergency crew after hours, when line workers are paid double their $45.04 hourly wage.

After-hours calls aren't unusual. From October 2010 through last month, TID averaged 15 calls per month that required a crew after hours, on weekends or holidays, spokesman Herb Smart said.

The IBEW and TID management have been negotiating for a new contract since April 2011, and the workers have been without a contract since December. Modesto Irrigation District is in a similar situation with its employees, who have worked without a contract since their last agreement expired in 2008.

Union officials and local members have not responded to repeated attempts over three days to contact them.

A Pacific Gas & Electric Co. crew finally arrived Sunday morning and restored power to the roughly 50 affected customers, some of whom have complained about the situation and filed claims for thousands of dollars in losses of refrigerated and frozen food that went bad.

"Turning it over to the court of public opinion is risky," Sablynski said, pointing to the recent National Football League lockout of its referees. That said, such drastic measures can yield results.

"When things get rough, you can look to creative solutions," he said. Fans frustrated with bad calls by inexperienced replacement referees, for instance, suggested there be some kind of agreement in which at least one experienced official join each crew. The NFL and its referees reached an agreement last week, returning all the veteran referees to the field.

"Both parties would agree they don't want to harm the public," Sablynski said. "Maybe they can find some alternative so that the public doesn't get harmed."

Still, if the line workers were trying to make a statement — and nobody has said that they were — it worked, at least in one way, he said.

"They showed, 'We're going to the ends of the earth to make you understand we're in agreement,' " Sablynski said. "That degree of solidarity is a formidable force."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or (209) 578-2343.

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