It was the first picket in the union’s 62-year relationship with the utility, and a measure of the frustration that members and retirees feel at the company’s insistence on slashing medical benefits for current and future retirees. Company trucks pulling into the yard blasted their horns in approval as picketers hoisted signs declaring “Broken Promises” and “Protect our Retirees” and “Shame on NV Energy.”
Even with 400 picket signs there weren’t enough to go around as employees getting off work joined a legion of retirees stretching out along both Mill Street and Ohm Place. Losing medical benefits, it turns out, is a powerful motivator.
Among the hundreds walking picket was Santiago Salazar, a retired Substation Electrician.
“I can see no reason why a company that is doing well,that is giving a dividend, (is) attacking the retirees. It’s
appalling what this company is doing. I don’t see a fiscal reason for it.”
Current employees seemed just as appalled as retirees. “I made a promise to this company 24 years ago and they made a promise to me,” said Theresa Martin, a Gas Meterman. “What they’re doing to the retirees right now is showing me how they’re breaking their promise. I still have to uphold mine because of my morals. I wonder where their’s are.”
After sunset the picketers drew together for a candlelight rally, where speaker after speaker
called out the company for its recent behavior.
There were plenty of signs that NV Energy employees and retirees
will not be alone in their fight.
“I want to bring you greetings from 12,000 IBEW members from
PG&E in California. We’re here to support you,” proclaimed Cecelia
De La Torre, a member of the IBEW bargaining committee that will begin Clerical negotiations next year with PG&E.
“We know you made NV Energy what it is today. You’ve helped
them thrive during the good times and you helped them survive in
bad times,” said De La Torre, who also serves as treasurer for Local
1245. “Now NV Energy wants to gut a contract that you’ve worked
hard on for 62 years … This is not fair. In fact, it’s shameful.”
Father Ray Decker, representing a national organization of Catholic scholars, invoked the
Judeo-Christian tradition of justice in his remarks. That religious tradition, he said, standing
amidst a sea of candles, emphasizes that people who contribute to a community “are
entitled to the fruits of that community.”
“You belong to the small community indeed of Nevada
Energy, but you also belong to a broader community. And you are entitled by the fact that you have contributed to these communities, you are entitled to the benefits that come,” he said. “As a representative of the religious community I want to
thank you for standing for that moral principle that is deep within our tradition.”
Father Decker also thanked the workers for standing up for integrity. “A promise has been made to those retirees,” he said, and by fighting for retirees, workers are defending a “deeper and wider” principle.
The theme of justice was next picked up by Rabbi Myra Soifer, who invoked a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Justice,
justice shalt thou pursue.”
“And we can surely add, standing together as we rally for honest treatment of labor by NV Energy, we can surely add: Justice, justice—in health and productivity and in sickness and need,” said Soifer, who served as rabbi at Reno’s Temple Sinai for 25 years.
“Justice, justice—for the worker equally as for management. Justice, justice—when apromise is made and when it is time to deliver on that promise,” she said, calling it a “straightforward moral and legal obligation that should not be hard for NV Energy tounderstand.”
Although spirits were high on the picket line, a slow burn was evident among the participants.
The next generation pitches in to protect retiree medical benefits. NV Energy’s warpath mentality at the bargaining table has made the company virtually unrecognizable to many of its current and former employees. It didn’t help matters when the utility’s directors—just days before the picket and rally—decided to eliminate 100 positions beyond the 120 employees who have already accepted voluntary severance.
“We feel we’ve done our part in the past to keep this company going through thick and thin,” said Tom Cornell, a 20-year employee and member of the union’s bargaining committee. “Anytime there’s a storm, the lines are down and people are without power, we go out and take care of the job, do the work, and get people back in power.”
When those storms hit on holidays, union members still go out and deliver the service the company has promised, Cornell said. “We look at these upper management, they’re sitting at home Christmas Day with their families, carefree and happy.”
“The man on the street is what makes this company go,” said retiree Vern Smith, who hired on in 1969. “It always was what made the company go. It wasn’t the management sitting in the office that made this company go.”
Commitment to Serve
Employees know, and retirees remember, that a commitment to serve the public has always been at the heart of their work. You don’t call in sick just because there’s a storm blowing— because you know an entire community depends on you to do your job.
But employees and retirees today are wondering if the company even understands what the word commitment means.
Kevin Lavely, a Lead Operator at Tracy Power Plant, said when he hired on 24 years ago, the company promised he would have medical benefits when he retired. “Now they want to take that away from me and they want to take it away from the people who are already retired and I don’t think that’s fair,” Lavely said.
“I was a customer service man, working in the Gas operations,” said retiree Charles McKee, who had 23 years of service with the company. “It was a good job, fantastic place to work. It’s just that we want our benefits. What we were promised, we want to keep.”
During the energy crisis of 2000-2001, the company turned to its employees for support, said Eric Morris, a retiree with 30 years of service—22 of it as a Troubleman.
“They said, ‘We’re in dire trouble, we need your help, everybody pitch in,’ ” Morris recalled. “And we as employees pitched in and we bailed this company out…Now they’re very affluent and now they’re trying to take the benefits away from the retirees who broke our backs for the company.”
Employee loyalty is something the utility has always been able to count on, a bankable asset in an industry whose product is service. But even the best assets can degrade if they are not protected, and it is not clear whether company executives understand the treasure they have in a skilled, loyal workforce.
David Thieme, one of the last speakers at the candlelight rally, began his career as a customer service representative at the call center. He knows from experience that protecting the company’s brand can be hard work.
“At the call center we talk to angry customers a lot of the time.” Customers are angry about a rate hike, he said, or they’re angry that the company’s a monopoly. “And we talk to these people and we explain about it and hopefully we make them feel better, and a lot of the time we do,” Thieme said.
“The whole time we’re talking to these customers and making them feel better,” he continued, a hundredcandles flickering around him in the night, “we feel like we’re getting stabbed in the back by this company and they don’t care about the work we’re
“What the heck, man, not cool,” he said, as members and retirees began to chant, “Shame on NV Energy.”
“We’re here to let them know they can’t do this to us anymore,” Thieme said as the chanting subsided. “We deserve better than that.”
Go to the Rally Photos link to see more photos from the informational picket and candlelight rally.