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Alabama Utility Crews Turned Away From Sandy Relief: Not Union [UPDATE: Not Exactly]

Utility crews from Alabama traveled to New Jersey to help get the power back on. They were turned away on account of not being unionized.

AL.com (“Because Alabama utility crews not union, New Jersey turns away help in wake of Sandy“):

Crews from Huntsville Utilities and Decatur Utilities are among many that made their way to the hurricane-ravaged East Coast only to be turned away in New Jersey,according to a WAFF 48 News report.

Derrick Moore, one of the Decatur workers, told the North Alabama station they were told by crews in New Jersey that since they are not union employees, they are not allowed to work.

Moore told the station they’re frustrated being told “thanks, but no thanks.”

New Jersey’s loss is New York’s gain. According to the report, the Huntsville crew is instead headed to Long Island to assist.

From WAFF 48 News:

A six man crew from Decatur Utilities headed up there this week, but Derrick Moore, one of the Decatur workers, said they were told by crews in New Jersey that they can’t do any work there since they’re not union employees.

The general manager of Decatur Utilities, Ray Hardin told Fox Business they were presented documents from the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers at a staging area in Virginia. The documents stated they had to affiliate with a union to work, which the crews could not agree to.

Hardin said the crews were not turned away but were made to believe that affiliating with the union was a requirement to work.

“It was and remains our understanding that agreeing to those requirements was a condition of being allowed to work in those areas,” said Hardin.

As they waited for confirmation on the documents, crews received word that Seaside Heights had received the assistance they needed from other sources.

“At this stage, it is not clear who is alleged to have turned the crew away and the company that employs the affected workers has denied the claim. IBEW local leaders in New Jersey have reiterated what has  been the long standing record of our union -in times of crisis all help is welcome and we pull together with everyone to meet the needs of the public. We have communicated this to the office of New Jersey Governor Christie as well,” said IBEW President Ed Hill.

While I support Right to Work laws, I understand the rationale behind requiring union labor in areas where that’s the standard. But, surely, those reasons don’t hold up during natural disasters and when people have come several hundred miles to work without pay?

UPDATE: (Courtesy Michael Preston) New Jersey folks are denying that this happened–or at least that there’s a policy in place.

The Star-Ledger (“Non-union utility crews from out of state can work in N.J., power companies say“):

Major utility companies in New Jersey said that they are welcoming any and all out-of-state crews helping to restore power, and have not refused any non-union contractors.

At least one media report out of Alabama claims that personnel from that state were turned away in Seaside Heights because they were not affiliated with a union.

“We take crews as they become available,” said Ron Morano, a spokesman for Jersey Central Power & Light. “Everyone understands this is an all-hands-on-deck event.”

He said crews from throughout the nation were now working in JCP&L’s service area, including from California, Idaho, Kentucky, Florida, Michigan and North Carolina.

He did suggest that municipal companies might have issues working side-by-side with non-unionized contractors.

“We did not turn any crews away,” he said.

A Public Service Electric & Gas spokeswoman also said the extent of damage from Monday’s superstorm called for as much manpower as could get here.

“We have not turned any mutual-aid crews away,” Deann Muzikar said. “We’re taking any help we can possibly get.”

It would be really odd to make this sort of story up, so I’m sure the Alabama crew did in fact get turned away. But they might have just been the victims of poor local decision-making rather than of a really stupid policy.

UPDATE 2: The story is looking increasingly fishy. The basis appears to be one report on Fox Business, which has been quoted in multiple places as news. There were in fact three crews from Alabama, one of which never dispatched. One crew was dispatched to New York without incident. The other, consisting of six men, was allegedly dispatched to New Jersey and turned away–but they’re suddenly no longer available for interviews.  I’ll update further if/when I see more on this.

UPDATE 3: Steven Taylor reports in the comments below that Alabama Power has issued a statement denying that any of its crews were turned away and has a Facebook page about their contributions in New Jersey and the warm reception they received. Granted, the utility doesn’t serve the northernmost counties of the state, which is where the initial reports claimed the problem occurred.

But UPI is reporting that, “Three Alabama utility companies Friday denied reports their crews weren’t permitted to help restore power in New Jersey because the workers were non-union.” Moreover, in something of an ironic twist, it seems that the one company impacted was a union shop:

Several conservative media organizations — including Fox News and the Drudge Report — picked up a story from an Alabama TV station that crews from Huntsville Utilities and Joe Wheeler Electrical Membership Corp. weren’t allowed to help with electrical service restoration in New Jersey because they don’t belong to a union.

A third Alabama utility, Decatur Utilities, said its employees were asked to affiliate with a union before starting to work on the power restoration in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, AL.com reported.

Huntsville Utilities spokes Bill Yell said nine of his company’s employees were working in New Jersey. “That’s a rumor,” he said of the report that workers who traveled to New Jersey to help out were being turned away.

Joe Wheeler EMC said on its website reports that its workers were turned away from Hurricane Sandy relief efforts “are not true.”

“Joe Wheeler EMC was never commissioned to go to New Jersey or New York,” the company said. “Instead, JWEMC sent eight linemen to Denton, Maryland, to help out Choptank Electric Cooperative.” The statement said JWEMC crews were returning to Alabama from Maryland.

“Joe Wheeler EMC employees are members of The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – Local 558 union,” the company said. “Any reports that claim JWEMC is not unionized are false.”

Yell and JWEMC spokeswoman Mandi Phillips told AL.com they have been swamped with media inquiries following reports of the matter on cable channels, including Fox News and CNN, as well as in several New Jersey newspapers.

Yell noted that in cases where crews are sent to other states to help in emergencies, “it’s not a situation where everybody jumps in truck and heads up there. You have to work through trade associations. You have mutual-aid agreements and you’ve got to find a system that needs you and is able to take you.” He said not all electric systems use the same voltage and technical configurations.

 

CBS News follows up:

In a press release issued Friday morning, Decatur Utilities said it had sent a six-man crew to the Northeast on Wednesday, bound for Seaside Heights, N.J.

“Communications with Seaside Heights was poor due to lack of cell phone service in the area,” the statement said. “Upon arriving at a staging area in Virginia, crews were held in place pending clarification of documents received from IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) that implied a requirement of our employees to agree to union affiliation while working in the New York and New Jersey areas. It was and remains our understanding that agreeing to those requirements was a condition of being allowed to work in those areas.

“As we waited for clarification, we became aware that Seaside Heights had received the assistance they needed from other sources, To be clear, at no time were our crews “turned away” from the utility in Seaside Heights.

“In connection with state and regional public power associations, Decatur Utilities attempted to contact other areas that needed assistance. However, based on the uncertainty of union requirements that we could not agree to and the uncertainty of whether a resolution could be reached, we ultimately made the decision to return them to Decatur after being stalled in the Virginia area most of the day on Thursday.”

So, yes, one small crew was unable to go to New Jersey because of union red tape. But, as Yell notes above, it’s widely understood within the industry that this sort of coordination is necessary.

As noted in the comments below, AL.com is a reputable outlet–a consortium of the Birmingham News, Huntsville Times, and Mobile Press-Register. This story was an editor’s pick prominently displayed on a story about Alabama football that I was there to read. But it appears to be a blog post picking up on reporting from a local TV station—a Fox affiliate—that’s in turn picking up a Fox Business report.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Rob in CT says:

    Agreed. As someone who generally things unions are unfairly maligned, I’m with you here. A temporary waiver in the wake of a disaster is the obvious answer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  2. mantis says:

    But they might have just been the victims of poor local decision-making rather than of a really stupid policy.

    And right away called a news station to complain about it? They have an agenda.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 3

  3. NickTamere says:

    so I’m sure the Alabama crew did in fact get turned away

    They didn’t get turned away, they never made it past Virginia.

    Decatur Utilities sent a 6-man crew to the Northeast Wednesday, October 31, bound for Seaside Heights, N.J., to assist with power restoration. Communication with Seaside Heights was poor due to lack of cell phone service in the area. Upon arriving at a staging area in Virginia, crews were held in place pending clarification of documents received from IBEW that implied a requirement of our employees to agree to union affiliation while working in the New York and New Jersey areas. It was and remains our understanding that agreeing to those requirements was a condition of being allowed to work in those areas. As we waited for clarification, we became aware that Seaside Heights had received the assistance they needed from other sources. To be clear, at no time were our crews ‘turned away’ from the utility in Seaside Heights.

    In connection with state and regional public power associations, Decatur Utilities attempted to contact other areas that needed assistance. However, based on the uncertainty of union requirements that we could not agree to and the uncertainty of whether a resolution could be reached, we ultimately made the decision to return them to Decatur after being stalled in the Virginia area most of the day on Thursday.”

    So what exactly were the union requirements that they could not agree to?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I can’t speak to the NorthEast Corridor, but most of the utilities in the Midwest have executed mutual aid agreements to provide each other with work crews in the event of disaster. These are supposed to speed and streamline assistance by already have plans in place. They are negotiated agreements depending on each community’s anticipated needs.

    I will hazard to guess that no such agreement existed and those that do exist might in fact have labor requirements that were reasonable based upon the area of country. I’m suggesting that there is no union requirement, but that was the expectation in the agreements workers were familiar with and someone was looking for clarification from above that never came.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  5. wr says:

    What do you know, it seems there’s no story here, just another anti-union smear by people working to eliminate workers’ rights across the country.

    Or maybe you think it’s normal that a work crew travels from Alabama to New Jersey to volunteer, gets turned away, and immediately calls an Alabama TV station to complain about it.

    Oh, but wait — it gets better. Because it turns out that the terrible, horrible, awful union affiliation agreement that the utilities were being forced to sign came not from the IBEW, not from anyone in New Jersey, but from the ECA, a coalition of Alabama’s municipally owned electric utilities, which sent it because they thought that the workers might be forced to sign it, since the unions are such big meanies in New Jersey. (http://whnt.com/2012/11/02/decatur-utilities-crews-return-from-virginia/)

    So here’s the story:

    Alabama work crew travels north to help out in New Jersey.

    Alabama utilities sends them a document claiming that the workers would have to join the union and pay dues, apparently making it seem like this came from New Jersey.

    Crew goes away, doesn’t help out.

    Some anonymous elf alerts Alabama TV stations that evil unions are hurting honest Americans because they’re greedy.

    Doug buys it hook, line, and sinker and rushes to publicize it.

    Am I missing anything?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 8

  6. PD Shaw says:

    @James, Decatur Utilties has a press release which confirms the substance of the story but does not rule out a misunderstanding.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. SKI says:

    Here is the NewJersey.com report:

    New Jersey’s power companies are stressing today that they are accepting help from both union and non-union crews during the massive effort to restore power to those still in the dark in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

    The clarification comes after a utility company from Alabama said a six-man crew was headed to New Jersey on Wednesday, but turned back in Virginia after they said concerns were raised about whether New Jersey would accept help from the company’s non-union utility crew.

    Non-union crews should not be concerned about coming to New Jersey to help bolster the efforts of New Jersey utility companies, officials said today.

    “We are accepting any available resource,” said Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for PSE&G.

    “We are working with our union and have non union crews participating in our restoration efforts,” said Ron Morano, a spokesman for JCP&L. “We continue to accept support from out of state utility companies and contractors.”

    Confusion arose after an Alabama television station reported yesterday that a non-union crew was turned away.

    A statement issued today from Alabama-based Decatur Utilities said the company believes its crew would have had to agree to certain conditions to work in New Jersey, and pulled its crew back from a Virginia staging area as a result.

    At no time was the crew “turned away” by anyone in New Jersey, the statement said.

    Thousands still remain without power in New Jersey days after the storm hit, with many suffering through cold nights without heat or hot water.

    No out-of-state crews – union or non-union – that are coming to help New Jersey utilities will be turned away, said Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Governor Christie.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I can’t speak to the NorthEast Corridor, but most of the utilities in the Midwest have executed mutual aid agreements to provide each other with work crews in the event of disaster.

    This. A buddy of mine works as a lineman for our local (nonunion) electrical coop. He has been deployed all across the continent in the wake of many disasters. A crew does not just pick up and go. Agreements are worked out in advance of storms like this. The logistics are enough of a nightmare for the local utility without crews just showing up.

    I don’t know what happened in this case but I doubt very much it was a union/nonunion thing. That would be worked out in advance.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. rudderpedals says:

    Update:…
    Update 2….

    You needn’t have troubled yourself with updates since Cokie’s Law is still in effect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. PD Shaw says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: My local municipal utility went to Cleveland to help out under pre-existing mutual aid agreements. When that was reported a few days ago, I was already wondering if a large part of the reason they were going there is the agreements were already in place, not based upon where the crews are needed most.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. michael reynolds says:

    this is like when Doug relied on a Fox story on Benghazi the other day and I suggested he get back to us when he had something from an actual news source.

    Fox does not report. Fox is Pravda.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 8

  12. mantis says:

    @michael reynolds:

    this is like when Doug relied on a Fox story on Benghazi the other day and I suggested he get back to us when he had something from an actual news source.

    And actual news sources have gotten some real information about Benghazi from the people who actually know what happened, the CIA. Doug has yet to post anything about it though. He and his wingnut pals really want to believe that Obama and the Pentagon said “f*ck them” and left the guys in Benghazi to die, so they’ll take Fox News’s anonymous “sources familiar with…[ratf*cking]” bullshit without questioning it for a moment. An intelligent person would recognize this was a CIA operation from the beginning and thus might be shrouded in secret for good reasons, and maybe we shouldn’t just believe what every partisan propaganda outlet says about it and instead wait for the whole story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 2

  13. Argon says:

    James, is there a possibility that you posted this story because it played to your pre-existing beliefs?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  14. PD Shaw says:

    @michael reynolds: The story was confirmed by the City of Decatur’s press release. Or should we not trust government anymore?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. michael reynolds says:

    Republicans hate union members. Like the unionized cops and firemen on 911 who ran toward the towers while everyone else was running away. Damn unions. Bunch of leeches, forever demanding decent pay and working conditions when obviously we should simply trust billionaires who own, say, coal mines, meatpacking plants and so on.

    Republicans wear themselves out attacking unions then scratch their head in wonderment as the middle class goes downhill.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 8

  16. michael reynolds says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Well, PD, back in the day when we had actual reporters they would look to confirm with second sources.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4

  17. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: @Argon: I stumbled on the story at AL.com while reading what I usually read there, stories about Alabama football. It’s a very reputable site—an aggregation of the Birmingham News, Huntsville Times, and Mobile Press-Register. This was a lazy story, though, sourced to a source that had a source.

    But, yes, it struck me as perfectly plausible that “rules is rules” bureaucratic instincts kicked in.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  18. mantis says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, yes, it struck me as perfectly plausible that “rules is rules” bureaucratic instincts kicked in.

    In a normal situation, I would probably not think twice about such a story (especially since I work in a building with union maintenance/facilities workers; you can’t hang a picture without a work order), but in the midst of this crisis, when New Jersey will take all the help they can get? I would think twice. There are tons of out of state crews up there now. We would have heard more than this paper thin story if they were turning non-union crews away.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  19. Dazedandconfused says:

    @michael reynolds:

    IYO, has our general level of tolerance to lying risen in recent times?

    I think it has. Check this out:

    http://www.samefacts.com/2012/10/lying-in-politics/romney-gives-half-a-peace-sign-to-fact-checking/

    “A bridge lie too far” tactical assessment of Romney in Ohio.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  20. swbarnes2 says:

    Your title says “Alabama Utilities Crews Turned Away”.

    Your own source says:”Hardin said the crews were not turned away”.

    How is this honest?

    Don’t unions have rules about making sure union people are working safely? Maybe they didn’t want a bunch of guys with crappy safety regs making things worse with a preventable accident.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4

  21. JKB says:

    From the sound of it, someone, apparently not official, implied, at least, to this crew they had to join the union to work the disaster. It is good that it isn’t an official NJ regulation or the power companies policy.

    That doesn’t mean that unions aren’t holding to their rules even as people suffer. Here’s a report from Bird Dog over at Maggie’s Farm

    In our town, clearing of fallen trees on roads and power lines is moving slowly. Why? Because here, the town union contract forbids subcontracting of tree work on roads and public land. Has to be done by town employees no matter how long it takes. Insane.

    I did see this, Alabama is thinking ahead and utilizing an emergency absentee ballot rule for the responders so they can have their vote counted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  22. Davebo says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, yes, it struck me as perfectly plausible

    That could explain why you deleted your post from this morning James.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. James Joyner says:

    @Davebo: I didn’t delete it; it posted accidentally. It’s a draft of what will be one of two group posts wherein the OTB posters predict the outcomes of the presidential and congressional elections. On one of many edits, I accidentally hit Publish–which is my default mode–rather than the less prominent “save as draft” button. I reserve the right to tweak the post based on any new polling that’s out tomorrow, but I expect it to come out in substantially the same form, with the addition of contributions from others.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Mike says:

    @NickTamere: @michael reynolds:
    You’re very confused or ignorant. Unions did not run toward the towers on 9/11, people (heroes) doing their jobs did.
    Do you think our military would be better off if soldiers were unionized? You’re very short- sighted in your beliefs and carry no basis for your statements other than an emotional arguement.
    Unions have a limited purpose, my father was a railroad union negotiator. If you ever saw what our family saw (and heard) from the mouths and actions of union leaders, you would feel disgusted regarding your opinion of them. They are out of hand in most areas, hold their workers hostage, or at least as bargaining chips, while they get the luxury free ride and unlimited perks as a result of puuting their members through hell- all the while the members are mostly oblivious to this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  25. al-Ameda says:

    This sounds like a faked story. It is exactly what conservatives WANT to believe happened, designed to discredit unions and liberal government officials.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. This story was reported on several outlets here in Alabama. By mid-dayish, Alabama Power released the following: click.

    Also, their FB page is full of photos and thanks from NJ.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0