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Strikers take on power bosses

by ELIZABETH SCHULTE | July 20, 2001 | Page 16

CHICAGO--A huge energy corporation is out to crush a union in Chicago--again.

Hundreds of the striking members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 15 rallied July 11 at the headquarters of Midwest Generation.

In 1999, Midwest bought seven Illinois facilities from utility giant Commonwealth Edison (ComEd). Now the company is one of the largest power generators in the Midwest-and provides 40 percent of ComEd's power. And it's following the example of Peoples Energy, which won big concessions on work rules and overtime from the gasworkers' union in Chicago following a three-week strike earlier this year.

Midwest Generation wants big concessions, too--for example, on progressive discipline policies. When the union tried to negotiate a new deal with Midwest after the previous one with ComEd expired March 31, Midwest simply refused to bargain.

"We have offered solid, competitive wage increases," Midwest Generation President Georgia Nelson sneered. "A strike will be about this: a union failing to recognize that it no longer works in a utility environment, but in a competitive marketplace."

Translation: Nelson doesn't want a workforce protected by a strong union.

The company tried to bribe workers with a 4 percent base wage hike and a 5 percent incentive pay deal--in exchange for contract language that weakened the union. But IBEW members-who have an average of 15 years on the job--said no way.

If Midwest Generation management is familiar with the carrot, it's more comfortable with the stick.

Just ask striker Mark Mateski. Mark and his wife Teri were horrified to find out that Midwest had their health insurance terminated. They were notified of this by a home health care agency after they tried to order medical supplies for their son Jason, who is recovering from open-heart surgery.

The Mateskis thought that their insurance would continue as long as they paid the full premium, as required by the federal COBRA law. Instead, they were told that they had to pay expenses up front, which they can't possibly afford.

"We're boiling Jason's catheters, because we can't get any more," said Jason's caregiver, Debra.

Still, Mark refuses to consider crossing the picket line. "I don't believe I could do that," he told reporters.

Public outcry finally forced the company to extend the Mateskis' benefits. But Midwest Generation's unlimited greed is clear for all to see.

The company is a subsidiary of Edison Mission Energy, which is owned by Edison International. Edison International also controls Southern California Edison (SoCal Edison)--where Georgia Nelson used to be vice president. SoCal Edison is one of California's "Big Three" power companies that made a killing off of deregulation--until the state power crunch hit, and it started looking for a bailout from the state of California to avoid bankruptcy.

The plants owned by Midwest enjoy plenty of perks here in Illinois. For decades, downstate legislators exempted ComEd's coal-burning plants from meeting new pollution standards. And when the strike began, the company got another favor--a restraining order against strikers blocking gates at the station in Waukegan.

Just a handful of Local 15 members are crossing the line. Unfortunately, members of other unions at Midwest Generation, such as the boilermakers, aren't honoring picket lines.

"If they had gone out, this would have been settled in a day," said one striker. "Union means that we stick together." It will take all the solidarity that can be built to teach Midwest Generation a lesson.

Send messages of support to IBEW Local 15, 1548 Bond St. Suite 103, Naperville, IL 60563.

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