WHY HAVE A UNION AT THE GEYSERS?
Why have a union at the Geysers?
Even if we did have a union, would management ever agree to bargain?
Would we be better off, or worse?
These were some of the questions in the air when Calpine employees and spouses gathered on Jan. 12, just two weeks before workers vote on union representation byI BEW Local 1245.
The news media was there, wanting to know what former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich was doing at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Cobb, CA, population 1,778. Reich definitely had something to say: on why top executives are doing so much better these days, and why workers are falling farther and farther behind. (See “Companies do better when workers have a voice.”)
But Calpine employees themselves are the real experts on their own situation, and many of them spoke up forcefully on Jan. 12 about what they’ve lost in recent years, and how they plan to do better with representation by IBEW Local 1245.
“People who have representation get a better deal,” said Mark Knaup, a Relief Operator who’s worked at the Geysers for 34 years.
“You go to court, you sell a house, you need representation. People with representation can get a better deal,” said Knaup. “In the workplace in America, we get a better deal when we have representation. The people who do the same job in the same area as us, (but) who are represented now by 1245, they got a better deal.”
And why is that?
“That’s the way it works because they have a voice,” said Knaup.
To Dennis Leavy, an Operator Technician-2, it’s a question of fairness and transparency.
“I want a union so there’s more structure,” Leavy said. He believes it’s important to spell out what the hourly wage scales are in each classification, and what training is required to move up.
The bottom line for Leavy, and why he’s supporting union representation: “Just more fairness throughout the whole hill.”
Erosion of Benefits
One employee, who requested anonymity so that he could speak frankly, expressed concerns about the erosion of benefits.
“They’re taking away our sick time and vacation and bringing it all into one package so if we run out of sick time we have to use our vacation,” he said.
His concern about the erosion of benefits was echoed by several others at the meeting in Cobb, including employees’ spouses.
“Over the years there’s been a lot of changes. They keep lowering and making us pay more and more and more,” said Nancy Rasmussen, who is married to 17-year Calpine employee Ladd Rusmussen. “It puts a burden on us and our family, where we have to cut down.”
She said that families are paying more out-of-pocket for benefits, but that the benefits are gradually shrinking.
Nancy Rasmussen: “They just keep whittling down a little bit, a little bit and a little bit.”
“Everything just seems to be decreasing: it’s the bonuses and it’s the time-off and it’s the holidays—they just keep whittling down a little bit, a little bit and a little bit. I don’t think they realize the impact it has on the families.”
In a part of the state where good jobs are scarce, Calpine employees are grateful to have work and they enjoy above-average wages. Everyone interviewed for this story affirmed their loyalty to Calpine and their desire to see the company succeed.
But they also expressed concern about the future and whether they will be able to hold on to what they have—even though they are highly-skilled workers providing an important service. There is uneasiness about what management might do next, and a sense that employees will be unable to do anything to defend themselves.
Ladd Rasmussen: “As an hourly worker it’s nice to have representation and a check and a balance”
One employee said he felt his job was in jeopardy, even though he had “great evaluations,” because the company might find someone else to do the job for less.
“Calpine hasn’t shown me anything yet that says they’re going to keep people who are doing their best for the company—they’re more looking at what the person’s making and how much they can save,” said this employee, who was granted anonymity so that he could speak frankly.
Job security is a growing concern as the company puts more and more emphasis on cutting costs. That insecurity can lead workers to staying quiet when they should be speaking up.
“You can’t say what it is you need to say at times when there’s safety issues or there’s management issues that you need to talk to them (about),” this employee said. “They use that chain of command that you can’t go past the person that you feel maybe you need to because he’s not listening to you.”
Ladd Rasmussen, who has 17 years in the Operations group, said he believes unions “act as a check and a balance against corporate interests, “which of course are to minimize expenses and maximize profits.”
“I do not begrudge the company management for doing that because that’s their job. But as an hourly worker it’s nice to have representation and a check and a balance, so that our interests are also looked at,” Rasmussen said.
In the end, it’s the workers who keep the company going, said Gary Hunt, a Power Plant Operator-2 with 20 years at Calpine.
“I’m all for Calpine. I’m for the company, I hope they do well. I hope they make tons of money,” he said.
But there’s no reason why workers should be the losers in that process, he said.
“We’re the ones who keep it flowing…We just come to work every day and there’s not one person up there at the Geysers who doesn’t come in and give 100%.”