FRANKFORT — At Dominion Transmission on Higby Road in Frankfort, 17 union members have been locked out of their jobs as part of a six-state, 950-employee lockout by Dominion Transmission and Dominion Hope.
At issue are retirees’ benefits, said local union representative Steve Fuhrer.
"We’re not looking for a raise or anything," he said while speaking from an impromptu picket line on Higby Road Wednesday.
The Virginia-based company, which specializes in natural gas transportation and storage, wants to get rid of retiree health benefits for new hires and change from pensions for new hires to a cash balance fund, changes opposed by United Gas Workers Union Local 69. Dominion also had wanted to change health benefits for current retirees, a move that concerns Fuhrer, but Local 69 President Craig Bradford said he thinks the union has an agreement worked out on that issue.
"It’s just total greed, you know," Fuhrer said.
Company officials said they made the decision to lock out employees when the union failed to vote on a tentative agreement reached Aug. 26. The union’s contract expired April 1.
"Our top priority is to safely and reliably meet the energy needs of our customers," said Jeff Murphy, vice president and general manager for Dominion Hope, and Brian Sheppard, vice president of pipeline operations for Dominion Transmission in a press release. "Given the actions of the union leadership, we feel we have no other choice with the heating season approaching. The uncertainty of the labor situation could leave our customers literally out in the cold. We cannot let that happen, so our companies have had to make a very difficult decision. We are taking the steps necessary to ensure continued safe operations and reliable service."
A negotiating session was scheduled for Thursday.
The tentative agreement was voted down by the union’s representative council, which means union bylaws don’t permit a ratification vote by the full union, Bradford said. Management was well aware of that possibility when the tentative agreement was reached, he said.
"I do want to be clear that this is a lockout, not a strike," Bradford said. "We are more than willing to go to work."
Knowing that management was concerned about a strike closer to heating season, the union had offered to sign a written agreement promising not to strike if Dominion would promise not to lock workers out as long as negotiations continued, Bradford said. But Dominion didn’t respond, he said.
The lockout wasn’t announced until 12: 01 Monday morning, union officials said. "At 2 o’clock in the morning, they left some kind of message (on some workers’ phones) saying they were locked out because of this and that," Fuhrer said.
Union members don’t want to strike because they’re concerned about safety along high pressure natural gas lines running from West Virginia to Schenectady, Bradford said.
"This is a monstrous network of operational pipelines. We have a serious concern when we’re willing to go back to work and continue to maintain that service and safety," he said.
But company officials insisted that safety and customer service are at the forefront of their minds. Supervisors and non-union workers will be supplemented with contractors and temporary workers during the lockout, they said.
"We want our customers to know that we will do everything in our power to make this event as seamless as possible for them," Murphy and Sheppard said in the release. "Some customer appointments may be rescheduled or delayed, but there will be no interruption of service, and all safety and reliability work will continue as usual. In addition, meter reading will be suspended during this period, but customers can submit their own meter readings by visiting dom.com and looking under ‘Customer Service’ for more information."