The Little Union That Did

The following is an article published on the UWUA Home Page in 1998

In one corner of the negotiating table, the champion weighing in with $828 million in revenue and trading on the New York Stock Exchange: NUI/Elizabethtown Gas. In the other corner, the challenger weighing in at 275-members-strong and serving the public safely, skillfully and reliably: Local 424 of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO.

After a long, drawn-out fight in which the champion tried to wear down the challenger–including months of negotiations that ended in impasse–Local 424, with ferocity and determination, came back swinging with a gutsy three-week strike, despite their union jobs being in jeopardy as NUI/Elizabethtown Gas used a scab work force of management personnel and non-union subcontractors.

After the last salvo was delivered, Local 424 demonstrated to the nation’s utility industry that 275 unified union members can defeat a publicly traded conglomerate with deep pockets. Local 424 instantly became a real-life “Little Union That Did.”

When impasse was reached, the union’s negotiating team decided to change the battleground from the bargaining table to the public arena. “Facing a company as big as NUI, with all of its financial and political muscle, we had to pull out the stops,” said Local 424 President Jeff Sylvester. “But we were careful not to negotiate through the press. The purpose was to mobilize public opinion in our favor and pressure management.”

At the time, NUI refused to budge on numerous give-backs that had been on the table and rejected by the union multiple times. But through a well-orchestrated media and public information campaign, coupled with the solidarity of 275 men and women, Local 424 was able to successfully negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that fought some of the company’s demands and give-backs, and provided members with fair and equitable provisions. The three-year contract expires November 21, 2001.

“If the industry is calling us ‘The Little Union That Did,’ I guess we earned this moniker,” said Mr. Sylvester, whose union represents mechanics, machine operators, electricians, collectors, meter readers, clerical personnel and other rank-and-file employees who serve NUI/Elizabethtown Gas’ 300,000 residential and commercial rate-payers in New Jersey’s Middlesex, Union and Warren counties.

Indeed! The campaign’s success won high praise from labor leaders around the country, some calling it a “text-book” study on how to turn the heat up on a utility employer and sway public opinion. A media expert said that this union tactic works best against companies that have a strong public presence, such as NUI, which is subject to ridicule and embarrassment, thus impacting the way Wall Street looks at the company.

With a modest budget of $30,000, Local 424 launched an aggressive public relations and media campaign–the kind usually reserved for larger, more substantially funded unions–to dramatize what Mr. Sylvester characterized as NUI’s disregard for and shoddy record on public safety and customer service.

While a spokesman put up a good front that the campaign would not pressure the company, the union’s multi-pronged attack sent NUI reeling. For starters, Local 424 hired a public relations firm which maintained media pressure through a steady flow of safety, customer service and other issue-oriented press releases. These stories appeared in daily and weekly community newspapers, and on radio and television news broadcasts.

This effort also included hard-hitting print advertising and effective informational pickets and rallies on Wall Street, outside company properties and in the hometowns of NUI/Elizabethtown Gas’ top executives–which proved effective because members distributed leaflets and spoke to customers and residents. A huge boost came when the local gained the support of the Utility Workers Union of America, its parent union, and the AFL-CIO.

The campaign slammed NUI for placing shareholder’s profits and enormous executive salaries and bonuses before public safety and customer service. They supported these allegations with facts, specifically that an unofficial company policy places after-business-hours gas leaks and other emergencies on hold until crews arrive for regular work shifts the following morning. “The public didn’t take too kindly to NUI jeopardizing safety and service just to avoid paying overtime to workers,” Mr. Sylvester said.

The union even successfully turned subcontracting into a public safety issue, instead of job loss issue. “We planted the seed that subcontractors are unregulated (and, of course, non-union) workers who are not as safety-conscious as Local 424 Members–and we cited past incidents and emergencies created by subcontractors that we had to go in and clean up,” the union chief said.

Print advertisement, powerful in nature, urged NUI’s rate-payers, as well as New Jersey residents, to contact the state’s Board of Public Utilities and the company’s top executives to file a protest of concern over the NUI’s inefficiency and dubious safety policies.

“Our message was clear–that as union workers we could not accept a contract that would jeopardize public and worker safety and customer service. Meanwhile, NUI was touting that it had management personnel and subcontractors ready to pick up the slack if we called a strike. We repeated over and over that this was a recipe for disaster, even during the strike,” Mr. Sylvester said.

He concluded, “Striking was a last resort. But I am certain that if we hadn’t kept up the pressure leading up to and during the strike, who knows where we would be today.”

Like the headline says: “Local 424–The Little Union That Did”