Utility workers, public, dump on American Water’s rate increase demands at public hearings

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[frame src="https://labortribune.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/1.jpeg" width="250" height="150" align="left" style="2" linkstyle="none" title="Making their point, members of Utility Workers Local 335 picket prior to a meeting of the Public Service Commission last week on the UMSL north campus protesting not only a proposed rate increase, but also the company's unconscionable attitude toward its employees. (From left to right) Larry Miller, Vice President Al Ratermann, President Tom Schneider, Lonnie Morrison, Recording Secretary James Dent and Financial Secretary Allan Bathon"]Normandy –Missouri American Water, the company that has dumped on its 400 plus employee members of Utility Workers 335, got dumped on itself last week – BIG time!

• The St. Louis County Council passed a resolution calling on the company to bargain fairly with its union. To date, American Water unilaterally ended negotiations, imposed a massive take-away contract, and welched on an agreement with the union to use Local 335 members to do the work created by a water surcharge funding infrastructure and/or safety costs (ISRS rate on water bills).

• At two public hearings on Jan. 9 sponsored by the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) held at the UMSL Campus in North County here, speakers complained about service and railed against a pending rate increase that a company spokesman said was 18 percent but under questioning about disparity of previously announced numbers, admitted that the “18 percent” was a company wide average. The real increase for St. Louis County was 24 percent. A review American Water’s total proposal by the Labor Tribune shows that in some water districts, the increase will be 76 percent.

• Officers of Local 335 raised serious safety issues and challenged the company’s need for any increase citing the company’s continuing profitability and giving top executives millions in bonuses while gutting the workers’ contract.

• Florissant Mayor Emeritus Bob Lowery called Missouri American Water “atrocious” and severely criticized the company’s terrible attitude towards its employees. Citing the company’s profits and huge executive bonuses while cutting employee benefits, Lowery charged that American Water’s demand for an increase “outrageous.”

CITIZENS UPSET

A number of citizens provided official testimony against the company. Among them:

• Tanya Martley, retired, said bluntly, “I can’t keep up,” adding with tears almost coming out, “I can’t give you any more!” She said her bill used to be $30 a quarter and now was $70.

• A small business owner made one of the most cogent arguments of the evening: if a small business is mismanaged, it goes out of business. If the water company is mismanaged, all you have to do “is come to the PSC and get them to give you more money.”

• Glen Jones, a musician, complained bitterly that a major water problem in his yard was ignored for almost four years, and that every time he called to beg for help, American Water staff treated him poorly. “They wouldn’t even let me talk with a supervisor after I got tired of them turning me down all the time,” he said.

• Dr. Elaine Sweeney, questioning why something called a ISRS rate went from seven cents in 2009 to $1.31 for 100 cubic feet on her last bill in November? This bill is “getting a little pinchy to pay,” she said, adding, that since American Water bought the small water company serving her area, “water costs have gone up, and up, and up.”

• Brenda Miller, a retiree living on her Social Security, noted that she was on a fixed income and that she was “hard pressed to buy food, other necessities of life. An 18 percent increase is outrageous. Don’t do this,” she appealed to the three PSC law judges taking pubic testimony.

• Rich Weyrauch, a Local 335 member working in a water plant, charged that the company is not spending adequate money to keep up its water purification plants. “ I haven’t seen a company guy in our plant in at least 10 years.”

 UNION MAKES KEY POINTS

Local 335 President Tom Schneider, and Vice President Al Ratermann challenged the company’s actions on several grounds:

• Safety: noting that all American Water employees go through a rigorous background checks, Schneider charged that the company has begun to outsource union work to non-union subcontractors whose background checking procedures were unknown and probably quite dubious,“ potentially putting customers at risk.

“You put citizens in jeopardy when you let them (American Water) outsource the work,” he testified to the three-judge panel.

• Need for the rate increase: noting that American Water made $268 million in profit last year and paid seven top executives $12.5 million in bonuses, Ratermann noted that some of St. Louis’ rate boost would go to pay for outdated sewer and water systems in other cities. “Why should St. Louis customers have to help pay to rebuild a 120-year old system in Jefferson City?”

• Abrogating agreements: Ratermann pointed out the company’s disdain for keep its agreements with the union. In one instance cited, he said that the union agreed to cut some key benefits and support a special infrastructure rate increase called ISRS because the company signed a pledge that in exchange for the union’s help to increase the ISRS rate, the company’s union construction crews would to do all the work.

“In the last negotiations, they said ‘to hell with that agreement’ and basically ‘tore it up.’”

In the contract that ended last year, American Water unilaterally imposed its last offer, which involved massive givebacks by the employees.

• No bid contracts: The union charged that the company is giving no bid contracts to non-union firms in an effort to break the union. “When there are cost overruns, the company will simply pay them,” Ratermann said.

“We take pride in our jobs and the quality of the work we do,” Schneider said, noting that American Water across the nation is fighting to break its unions.

This hearing was one of 11 the PSC is holding around the state to get citizen feedback on American Water’s rate increase request. There is an 11-month period from the time of the request until the PSC must act. That decision should be made around May 30.

COUNTY COUNCIL ACTS

Concerned over the contract impasse between American Water and Local 335, the St. Louis County Council last week unanimously passed a resolution introduced by Councilman Mike O’Mara calling for “an equitable solution to its labor dispute” and urging American Water “to negotiate in good faith with its workforce to ensure the continuation of the well-paid, high quality jobs that enable maintaining the highest standards of public water service for all St. Louis Countians to enjoy.”

The resolution noted the high quality of work by Local 335 members: “With the excellent labor of its workforce (American Water) has maintained a reputation…as one of the national’s finest public utilities…to the benefit of the people of our community.”

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