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Updated: 3:00 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 | Posted: 8:02 a.m. Friday, Nov. 16, 2012

Vectren union workers set up pickets around Dayton

Vectren union workers set up pickets around Dayton
Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, Local 175 in Dayton has been locked out at Vectren Energy after contract negotations failed there Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012. Photo by Drew Simon/Staff

By Steve Bennish

DAYTON —

Union leaders for Vectren Energy Delivery of Ohio utility workers Friday set up informational pickets at utility locations around the Dayton area after a lockout by the company this morning.

The company said the labor dispute is the first of its kind since the 1970s.

Vectren said the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 175 rejected its last offer for a new contract for nearly 130 members. Vectren said it has staff in place to “ensure safe a reliable natural gas service continues for its customers.”

The union members are not permitted to work until a contract is ratified, officials said. The workers include service and construction technicians, meter shop employees, office workers and regulator technicians who maintain larger distribution facilities like higher-pressure gas lines.

Kelly Cooper, president of Local 175 which is headquartered in Dayton, said the main hangup is safety.

He said the union wants specially trained personnel to respond to reports of gas leaks. Cooper said Vectren wants to change the response to the utility worker closest to the complaint as a way to reduce response times. He said response times now are all under 30 minutes. “It takes years of experience to tell in a split second how to assure the safety of the customer,” he said. “The company locked out highly-skilled employees and are now using people not as qualified.”

Cooper added: “Vectren gave us a final proposal — what they deemed a final proposal. We were still making headway when we met with the federal mediator. The final proposal contains language that we believe would be a safety concern to our members as well as the public. This is not an economic issue. This is definitely a safety issue.”

“Vectren’s had some problems with explosions in the past. We don’t want that kind situation here in the Dayton area,” he said. “They want to send non-qualified or people out of their classification to respond to gas emergencies, we feel like that’s a safety concern for the employee as well as for the customers.”

Vectren spokeswoman Chase Kelley said the utility uses a system of closest technician response in Indiana and is trying to extend that to Ohio.

In Ohio, she said, the nearest technician now responds during the day. Vectren wants this to be extended to the 24-hour period. Kelley said the responding workers have the necessary training.

She said 60 replacement workers including contractors as needed are now on the job. They’re working 12-hour shifts instead of 8-hour shifts and are devoting themselves to time-sensitive work.

“The union’s argument has been they voted against the contract because of safety concerns and that we are proposing to send unqualified people to respond to gas emergencies. This is simply not true,” Kelley added. “Our proposal seeks to create an after-hours emergency response model in which we dispatch the closest field employee to the scene of a suspected gas leak. The union alleges we would somehow be sending untrained workers when in fact, all our field employees have been trained to be first responders.”

Cooper said the union is reaching out to the public for support and setting up pickets at the Centerville Service Center, 6500 Clyo Road in Centerville; Dayton West Service Center, 4285 N. James McGee Boulevard; Fairborn Service Center, 1335 E. Dayton Yellow Springs Road, Fairborn, and Troy Service Center, 1300 Experiment Farm Road, Troy, and in downtown Dayton at the Liberty Tower, 120 W. Second St.

Vectren Energy Delivery of Ohio President Colleen Ryan said the company has made a fair offer.

“We have worked in good faith with union leadership for many weeks - even meeting with a federal mediator - to package a very fair proposal,” Ryan said. “Furthermore, this contract featured measures to improve response time for after-hours emergencies by allowing us to dispatch employees closest to the source of the emergency, such as a suspected gas leak. This enhancement trims the time it takes to get a first responder to an after-hours emergency,” she said.

Staff writers Drew Simon and Mandy Gambrell contributed to this report.

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