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"They want to take my job--and call it cost-effective"
Gas workers on strike in Chicago

by BRIDGET BRODERICK and JOAN PARKIN | May 25, 2001 | Page 15

CHICAGO--Gas workers here began walking the picket lines May 19 at midnight after voting down Peoples Gas' second contract offer. On May 10, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 18007 rejected the company's offer, 828-129.

The deal included layoffs of clerks, a split workweek with mandatory Saturdays, one-man street crews and a 60 percent increase in medical insurance costs. The company "renegotiated" the contract with the union, but only made vague promises to halt layoffs.

Clerks argued that they could still be laid off if they were not "qualified" on the company's terms, meaning that they could be transferred into physically dangerous or impossible jobs--and then be laid off. "They want to take my job, turn my life upside down, jeopardize everything I've worked for--and call it cost-effective," said one clerk with 10 years on the job.

During the weeklong contract extension, Peoples Gas placed a gag order on the union as it tried to convince workers to accept the same lousy contract. This strategy failed. Of the 1,050 union members, 612 voted against the contract a second time, and 306 voted to accept.

Spirits were high on the midnight picket lines at workstations throughout the city. Strikers stressed their fight for safety and quality of life.

"If I have to work every Saturday until I retire, when am I going to see my family?" said one gas worker.

"We're concerned because the public will pay the consequences," said Frank Vitalo, a welder with 14 years at Peoples Gas. "I work on pipes with live gas. How far can the company cut corners? They are pushing us to the fence."

Safety is a real issue--for gas workers and customers. Strikers at the South Side station renamed the street after Sandy Torva, a gas worker who was murdered as she worked alone. Now Peoples Gas wants workers to dig holes and work in one-man crews, putting workers and consumers at risk.

For the duration of the strike, the company plans to use poorly trained managers and nonunion clerical staff to provide emergency gas services. "You can shut down a bubble gum factory and tell them they can't have bubble gum, but you can't shut down the gas company and tell people that their houses may explode and they can't have service," said service technician Jimmy Oliver.

Peoples Gas posted $36 million in profits in the last quarter alone as they charged consumers exorbitant prices for heating gas during Chicago's unusually cold winter. And it still isn't satisfied.

"The company claims it will save $1.4 million by firing all the clerical staff," said Local 18007 President Pat Coletta. "That just happens to be CEO Richard Terry's annual salary. Meanwhile, service workers would lose an average of $3,600 to $3,700 in overtime pay and pay out more for health benefits."

Customers disgusted with Peoples Gas's greed need to show support for gas workers who are standing up to fight for safety and quality of life.

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