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Local 534 Reverses Self;
Works to Privatize Sewage Operation
to Save Jobs ! 

(excerpted from the Bergen Record)

Friday, February 5, 1999

Staff Writer

Four years ago, the largest union at the Bergen County Utilities Authority spent more than $100,000 on a concerted effort to head off privatization of the agency's waste-water operation.

Local 534 of the Utility Workers Union of America highlighted its opposition with a television commercial depicting privatization as a public health and safety "disaster." The union went to court, distributed leaflets, and pressured county officials in a drive to derail the plan.

But now, as the effort to privatize the agency's sewage disposal operation is about to come to fruition, the union has taken an almost 180-degree turn.

The Utilities Workers Union of America is lobbying management to move the agency into the private sector, convinced that it is the best way to protect members' jobs. As the agency prepares to accept three privatization bids next month, the tension between union and management has escalated.

Behind the strained relations and the union's dramatic about-face is the uncertain future of the BCUA's large and lucrative waste-water facility, which one bidder said would be "one of the largest public-private opportunities in the United States" waste-water industry if privatized.

Located mainly in Little Ferry, the operation has a budget of $47 million and 226 employees. It treats and disposes of sewage for 45 Bergen County communities.

For about two years, the BCUA has followed a two-pronged strategy to improve efficiency at its waste-water operation: changing management and exploring privatization. Agency officials want to compare the cost of running the operation under both options.

"The driving force is economics," said acting Executive Director Jerome Sheehan.

As part of the efficiency drive, the BCUA board is expected to vote on layoffs Feb. 18. About 50 percent to 75 percent of of the layoffs would be in the agency's waste-water operation.

In five weeks, three private companies are expected to submit bids to take over management of the operation: United Water of Harrington Park, Operations Management International Inc. of Denver, and Professional Services group of Rhode Island.

A similar, two-pronged strategy in the BCUA's solid-waste facility ended in December when the agency declined to privatize the operation because officials found it could be run less expensively as a public agency.

Dealmagro said the proposed layoffs would leave the waste-water operation too shorthanded. He said some commissioners, for reasons that are unclear, do not want privatization and that they will execute the layoff plan so they can say the authority can function at a lower cost than it could under private management.

He said the union does not now endorse privatization, it just does not oppose it. The switch, he said, was simply the result of leadership: He was elected for the first time during the summer, he said. And he believes that his members have a better chance of keeping their jobs with a private company.

"We've talked to all three companies," Dealmagro said. "We had a good rapport with them. If any of them gets the award, the transition will be smooth. We are going to cooperate."

Though BCUA officials say Dealmagro told their board last week that the three companies have pledged to protect the jobs of the employees, officials at all three would confirm only that they have met with the union.

Meanwhile, the union membership next week is due to vote on two issues. One is to repeal a May 1993 resolution mandating the union "oppose privatization by all means and with all resources of Local 534." The other is to approve the bargaining agreement with a private company that "is deemed most suitable to the interests of the members."

excerpted from the 1999 Bergen Record Corp.

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