As superstorm Sandy pounded Long Island last week, representatives for the Long Island Power Authority began making mayday calls to repair crews across the nation. But their requests for help came with a footnote, according to one utility group that received a call: Contact the local electrical union first so that imported workers could be signed up as members before they arrived.
With repair work still going on 12 days later and more than 160,000 Long Islanders still without power after Sandy and this week's nor'easter, the contention that LIPA's union leaders required so-called "assent letters" sent to would-be workers early in the restoration has become an issue as ratepayers look for answers about why it's taking so long to get power back.
Barry Moline, executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, said Long Island could have received 125 additional workers from utilities across Florida as soon as two days after the storm if a dispute about the letters had been resolved sooner. He said most of the crews from Florida who were available were nonunion and refused to join Local 1049 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, even if only temporarily. IBEW Local 1049 represents some 2,000 National Grid workers contracted by LIPA.
"To have this contract thrust upon these organizations on short notice is an affront . . ." Moline said. "We said [to IBEW local], 'Why are you doing this?' They said, 'We want them [imported workers] to get a taste of the union so that when they go back home, they want the union.' "
Crews that could have come to Long Island went instead to Pennsylvania, Moline said. "We could have been there on Wednesday, and instead we arrived on Sunday," he said, after the union rescinded the requirement.
LIPA referred questions about the issue to National Grid, the company contracted by LIPA to oversee operations. "Assent letters were not required and that is not National Grid policy," spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said.
The dispute was settled the weekend after the storm hit following intervention by the American Public Power Association, which represents 2,000 municipal utilities across the nation. Nicholas Braden, a spokesman for the association, said although it took several days to resolve, he did not believe it delayed workers from arriving to the region.
Braden said the issue in dispute was that nonunion crews would "have had to pay union dues and stuff . . . It kind of stopped things in their tracks until they could work out the issue."
Braden said it was resolved by elimination of the requirement that they join the union. Crews from several Southern states had issues with the contract, Braden said, including workers from Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
Don Daley, business manager for Local 1049 of the IBEW, said no worker was turned away for refusing to sign the assent letters. "We're all about getting the lights on . . . 1049 has not obstructed anyone from coming."
He said that the money paid into pension and health funds would benefit the workers, not the fund. "That's their money," Daley said. "I think they just make a request to take their money out, and whatever tax laws there are, they get their money."
The assent letter -- if signed -- made out-of-state workers temporary members of the union, who receive Long Island's prevailing wage, regardless of what they received at their home utility. Included in the contract that temporary union members sign, according to a copy of it provided to Newsday: contribution of 22.5 percent of each employee's gross salary to the IBEW annuity fund; payments of $9.75 an hour to the union's health and welfare fund; 3 percent of their gross salary to the union's "craft division skill improvement fund"; 3 percent of each worker's gross salary to the union's National Electrical Benefit Fund; and lesser amounts to other funds.