(This story appears in the March-April 2010 issue of the Utility Reporter)
Early in the morning of Feb. 8, IBEW Local 1245 retirees in northern Nevada piled onto a bus bound for Las Vegas.
But they weren’t going there to gamble, party, or see a show. They were headed to the corporate headquarters of NV Energy, a company that profited from their dedicated service for many decades but wants to weasel out of its commitment to pay for retirees’ medical insurance now that they are old.
Even after the grueling all-day bus trip and an evening strategy session with Local 1245 organizers, the retirees motored down to NV Energy the next morning charged up and ready for action. And there was plenty of it, as some 400 union members showed up to call on the utility to honor its commitment to its retirees.
As energetic as it was (see story, page 16), the Vegas action was only one skirmish in a much larger campaign. The company’s callous disregard for its retirees has sparked a firestorm of protest that has spread from Reno to Yerington to Vegas, popped up on Google, called out from the radio, friended its way across Facebook, and enlivened the pages of the state’s major newspapers and primetime TV newscasts. The campaign even has its own website,www.ShameOnNVEnergy.com.
This is not how collective bargaining is supposed to work between a company and a union that have maintained labor peace while providing excellent service to customers in northern Nevada since 1947. But the sense of betrayal is acute among current and former employees, who believe they have been given no alternative but to redress their grievances in public.
The union contract, from which the company wants to delete all references to retiree medical benefits, expired at the beginning of the year and is being temporarily extended by mutual agreement while bargaining continues. (As the Utility Reporter went to press in early March, there were some faint signs of movement at the bargaining table. Members can check for the latest updates at www.ibew1245.com.)
The union’s campaign—which drew 600 to a massive rally on Nov. 7 and another 400 to the union’s first-ever picket of the company, on Nov. 19 in Reno—closed out 2009 with many of the state’s religious leaders calling on management to “honor its promises” to workers. The religious leaders’ appeal appeared as a full-page ad in the state’s major newspapers, followed up in some cases by private appeals from religious leaders to company executives.
But rather than listening to polite appeals to show some respect, the company has refused to budge on the issue of retiree medical benefits. In fact, the company has responded in ways that suggest it is oblivious to public opinion—a curious trait in a company whose mission is supposed to be public service.
Completely Tone Deaf
On top of more than 100 layoffs already announced, in January the company said it was closing its customer service office in Yerington effective Feb. 1 and redeploying the area’s one line crew to Carson City. The move leaves NV Energy without a single crew between Fallon and Goldfield—a distance of more than 200 miles. To a public that expects its electric utility to take emergency response seriously, the company’s decision must seem completely tone-deaf.
Local 1245 responded with local newspaper ads accusing NV Energy executives of pushing service cuts “while fattening their pockets with record pay hikes.” The ads noted that NV Energy reported profits of $180 million during the previous quarter, collected $134 million in federal bailout cash, and was able to pay its top executive $4 million in compensation.
In Yerington itself, NV Energy retirees walked door-to-door, where they found the public in 100% agreement with their cause and plenty unhappy about the loss of their electric crew.
About the same time the union took to the airwaves with a radio ad featuring Retiree Club President Ron Borst. The company wouldn’t let Borst tell his story to Michael Yackira (see “Return to Sender”, page 16), so the union decided it was a story the whole state should hear.
“First they close customer service offices so you get less service,” Borst says in the ad. “Now they’re cutting the people who work night and day to make sure the power stays on.” Borst goes on to point out that NV Energy is charging the highest rates of any mountain state, even as the company cuts service. (You can listen to the radio ad in the NV Energy section of the union’s website at www.ibew1245.com.)
Borst then invites the public to visit the campaign’s website at ShameOnNVEnergy.com. That website features photos of retirees holding Shame on NV Energy signs, accompanied by a brief explanation of the issues. Photos of NV Energy’s top executives and board members are featured in the website’s “Hall of Shame.” Visitors are given an opportunity to sign up in support of the union’s campaign.
Shining a Bright Light
Although NV Energy geared up last fall for a possible strike—they even contacted a Minnesota contractor for strikebreaker services—the union chose a form of resistance that the company had no way to answer: mobilizing its members in public protest and shining a very bright light on what the company is trying to do to its retirees.
Going into February, the union escalated its campaign on every front.
An “interfaith rally” in Reno in late January served as a springboard for the demonstration and picket in Las Vegas on Feb. 9. The union also saddled up its campaign and galloped into cyberspace. The union’s ShameOnNVEnergy Facebook page quickly attracted over 5,000 friends, mostly NV Energy customers voicing their displeasure with the company. About the same time, company CEO Michael Yackira took down his own Facebook page, apparently no longer enjoying the feedback he was getting from his “friends.”
The union penetrated even deeper into the cybersphere with a Google ad campaign that brought up the ShameOnNVEnergy message in response to certain search terms involving NV Energy. Something in the ads must have struck a nerve: Google users “clicked through” to the ShameOnNVEnergy website at five times the normal click-through rate for Google ads.
A similar intensity of purpose can be seen in the public’s overwhelming response to the union’s newspaper ad campaign, which encourages NV Energy customers to contact the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada. The PUCN received so many complaints about NV Energy they stopped taking calls from the public.
The issue of fair treatment for retirees has also found its way into the political arena. On Feb. 24 the union leafleted a special session of the Nevada Legislature, alerting legislators, aides and other capital visitors to NV Energy’s callous attitude toward its retirees. “Despite all earlier promises, NV Energy is taking away retirees’ hard-earned health care benefits during the most vulnerable time of their lives,” the leaflet says.
Three days later, members and retirees passed out leaflets to those attending the Washoe County Democratic party caucuses. Many caucus-goers also took Shame on NV Energy signs to put in their windows. The union introduced a resolution to the Democratic platform committee that calls on NV Energy to honor its commitments to customers, employees and retirees.
Retirees also made contact at one the highest places you can go in America’s political hierarchy: on Feb. 20 they met with United States Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Unlike Michael Yackira, he seemed happy to hear from IBEW Local 1245 retirees.