The city of Tacoma and a union of workers who maintain high-voltage power lines for the city and Tacoma Public Utilities are entering a second round of mediation.
The conflict with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 483 Tacoma Power union is not about money, but rather new language the city wants to insert into its contract that outlines the rights management has to bargain with the union, said Alice Phillips, business manager for IBEW 483.
“This whole management-rights issue is going to be a die-on-the-sword issue for this local,” Phillips said.
On Tuesday, members of the union voted 97 percent against the new contract with the city. The union also has received permission for an authorized picket line from national and regional union authorities.
While unions and the city occasionally agree to mediation, only one union has voted down the city’s contract proposal in the past six years — Tacoma Power for a previous version of its 2010-13 contract, said city Human Resources director Joy St. Germain.
The city and union will hold another mediation session as early as Monday, St. Germain said.
“Mediation is not unusual, and I don’t see that as an adversarial move,” she said. “It means both parties want to get to agreement but can’t seem to.”
Most members of the union maintain high-voltage power lines overhead or in underground vaults downtown.
While Phillips said she has faith in the process, the union has prepared for a strike. A few weeks ago, Phillips wrote the Pierce County Central Labor Council and the IBEW international office in Washington, D.C., to ask for a sanctioned picket line. The two groups authorized a picket line.
Public employees do not have a legal right to strike, St. Germain noted.
“I’m hoping that’s not going to happen,” she said.
If it does, she said recently, “Our interest would be to make sure we could operate Tacoma Power. That is first and foremost. Our citizens rely on Tacoma Power.”
Phillips said that come March 31, the contract will have been expired for a year. That means the city could force the union to accept the last offer presented during mediation sessions.
“That would not be done,” St. Germain said recently. “I don’t think the city has ever done that.”
Hydroelectric workers also are covered by the contract.
The new pact proposes that the hydroelectric workers live within a 30-minute drive of city-owned dams so they can take turns on standby shifts, Phillips said. Project managers are able to live expense-free at the project site. She said the union proposed a volunteer-only shift system, but the offer was turned down.
St. Germain said the city prefers to not discuss specifics of the contract.
The city and union have held 30 negotiation sessions and four mediation sessions in the past year. St. Germain said that typically when contracts expire, the city and union agree to extend the contract for a year to continue negotiations.
The union represents about 300 employees, the majority of whom are Tacoma Power employees. Some also work in the city’s Public Works department.
“They are up all night, sometimes for days on end,” Phillips said of union members. “They are working with high-voltage power lines. One mistake and it’s not very forgiving.”
City unions don’t strike often. The last was in 1992, when a clerical union was on strike for 16 days.