PLYMOUTH — With a strike by union workers entering its 12th day Monday, the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative reported that contract talks are scheduled to resume Wednesday, with the terms of retirement benefits apparently the main sticking point.
The talks between Co-op management and negotiators for Local 1837 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will continue to be facilitated by a federal mediator, said company spokesman Seth Wheeler.
Local 1837 Business Manager Dick Rogers said he had been informed that the federal negotiator would meet with the utility’s top management.
On strike are 83 employees of the member-owned utility, including linemen. The contract with the union expired on April 30 and union members walked off the job three days later. The Co-op employs 200 people all told.
At issue are pension and 401(k) benefits for union employees. The company has offered to give union members the same benefits as non-union employees, including management, but wants to reserve the right to make changes to these without having to submit them to negotiation. The union, on the other hand, maintains such changes should be subject to negotiation.
“Despite the generous proposal, the union objects to language in the company’s proposal that it be able to make the same changes to the pension plan at the same time changes are made to the pension plan for non-union employees,” the co-op said in a statement released Monday. “The intent of the company’s proposal is to maintain the same level of pension and 401k benefits for union and non-union employees.”
Rogers accused management of delaying tactics in an effort to get the union to yield to management’s demands. “Our members haven’t moved any,” he said Monday.
“The company is trying to starve employees out in hopes they’ll come crawling back.” He said union members remain steadfast in their resolve. He also reported that another rally in support of the strikers would take place Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in front of the Co-op headquarters on Tenney Mountain Highway in Plymouth.
The union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the company related to the co-op’s bargaining position on retirement benefits. Wheeler said that as of mid-day, Monday the co-op had not been informed of the complaint.
Since the strike began the co-op has been relying on contract crews to handle the work that would normally be performed by union members.
Wheeler said that the company was doing its best to keep up with the jobs that need to be done, but acknowledged that “it is not at a pace and completeness that we would normally do.”
He said service work — jobs such as moving meters and connecting new electrical service — was being prioritized and that the utility was working with customers to ensure that crews would be able to perform the needed work without any delays. He added that customers with open service orders should contact the co-op to determine the job’s status.
Meanwhile, Rogers said that many strikers are now working temporarily for other utilities — some as far away as New York state — in order to earn money. He also said the local has set up a strike fund to help its members during the job action.
The co-op, in its statement, said a first-class line worker makes an annual base salary of $81,057; plus an average of $6,547 for on-call pay for a total of approximately $87,604 annually. In addition, line workers earned $30,000 in overtime on average last year. In addition to their wages, line workers receive a benefits package, which on average costs the Co-op $54,676 to provide, the utility said.