Potentially contentious contract talks between the union
representing 200 USFilter Indianapolis Water employees and the
utility's management begin Nov. 18, giving negotiators six weeks to
hammer out a deal.
"We're not coming out of [the talks] without a defined
pension," said Robert Reed, president of the National
Conference of Firemen and Oilers Local No. 131. "That is going
to be the stickler in our benefits."
The pension plan became a lightning rod for water company employees
after the city bought the utility from Merrillville-based NiSource
Inc. in March 2002 for $515 million. The city then awarded a
20-year, $1.08 billion management package to USFilter Corp.
The loss of the pension is at the crux of a federal lawsuit brought
by non-union employees who allege their benefits have diminished as
a result of the city's purchase.
Tim Hewitt, president and operations manager of USFilter
Indianapolis Water, expects the issue to surface during talks to
renew the contract that expires Dec. 31.
"I'm certain it will come up," he said. "I think
anything's a possibility. We don't want to negotiate in the press.
These are matters that need to be discussed at the table."
USFilter Indianapolis Water inherited the current contract from
the former IWC Resources Inc., the holding company for the old
Indianapolis Water Co.
The two sides have scheduled nine bargaining sessions, if needed.
The last time water company employees walked out on strike was in
If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, a 60-day “rider”
prevents workers from striking until March 1. Although Reed, a
27-year employee with the company, doubts that will happen, he
expects the talks to be the “most contentious” in his tenure
because of the new regime.
"I've kindly conveyed to the company that I'm optimistic,"
he said. "But nevertheless, I feel we're going to face some
tough times when we get to the economics [of the contract]."
The task of negotiating will fall on Hewitt and on Tom Zabor, the
company's new labor relations director brought on board by Hewitt.
The two men worked together at the former Indiana Gas Co. before
parent Indiana Energy Inc. merged with the Southern Indiana Gas
& Electric Co. in Evansville to form Vectren Corp.
Hewitt, who had been president and CEO of Indiana Gas before the
merger, started his job at the water company June 9. He quickly
introduced himself to union leaders, he said.
"USFilter valued my background, in particular, with labor
unions," Hewitt said. "This is nothing new to me. Both [Zabor]
and I have negotiated a lot with unions over the last 13 or 14
The union also seeks a wage increase, though Reed declined to
divulge how much. Reed also said the union will be looking at
medical insurance and vacation benefits it fears could be reduced or
In their lawsuit, non-union employees claim they have a less
valuable health insurance plan and their vacation days have been
reduced. The city has moved to dismiss the complaint.
Another suit filed against the city on behalf of local taxpayers
claims its purchase of the water utility violates the Unigov
statute. The taxpayers argue management of the utility should have
been placed under the same public charitable trust that operates
Citizens Gas & Coke Utility. The city also has moved to dismiss
Although the city owns the water company, no one in local government
will be involved in contract talks. Sam Odle, president of the
Indianapolis Board of Waterworks, which governs the utility for the
city, said he has confidence in Hewitt, the utility’s management
team and its employees to get a contract ratified.
"It's an issue for them to work out,"he said.
The water company's 50 office and clerical workers became unionized
last year under Service Employees International. Their contract
began in January and runs until December 2005.
California-based USFilter has a number of agreements with unions
across the country, most of which have been negotiated with little
trouble, company spokesman Scott Edwards said.
But, he said: "This one might be different. I donít