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.