Florida Power, union forge new labor pact
By LOUIS HAU, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Florida Power Corp. and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers announced a tentative agreement Thursday on a new three-year contract for nearly half of the company's 4,500 workers.
The IBEW will recommend to its 2,100 members at the St. Petersburg utility that they should approve the new labor pact, according to W.O. "Butch" Enyard, lead union negotiator and business manager of IBEW System Council U-8 in Dunnellon.
The union has delayed the vote until Dec. 18 to await the return of IBEW members who left Thursday for the Carolinas, Enyard said. The Florida Power workers will help their counterparts at corporate sibling Carolina Power & Light restore power to more than 450,000 customers after a severe ice storm that pummelled CP&L's service territory overnight Wednesday.
Until the vote, Florida Power's unionized employees will continue to work under terms of their previous contract, which expired Sunday.
"It's got good money and good benefits," Enyard said of the new labor pact. "There are areas that are going to be a sore spot for some people, but it's still a good contract and it's a competitive one in the Southeast."
Florida Power president Bill Habermeyer hailed the new contract as good for both the utility and its unionized work force.
"Florida Power and the IBEW crafted an agreement that allows the company to continue to improve customer service while providing employees with a competitive package," Habermeyer said in a statement. "The tentative agreement is a product of compromise by both parties."
The agreement calls for pay raises of at least 3 percent in each year of the contract and includes company-sought changes to work rules and to some benefits, such as modifying its sick-leave policy and revamping the pension plan for new hires.
The pact ends more than two months of often tense negotiations and marks the first collective-bargaining agreement ever reached by CP&L, the non-union Raleigh, N.C., utility that acquired Florida Power's parent, Florida Progress, two years ago to form Progress Energy Inc.
Last week, Florida Power's unionized workers rejected the utility's previous contract offer and, in another first, voted decisively to authorize a strike. Although labor-management relations at Florida Power had often been strained before the 2000 merger, particularly during waves of cost-cutting layoffs in the 1990s, the union had never held a strike-authorization vote at the utility until this year.
During an IBEW rally and picnic in Dunnellon on the Saturday before the Nov. 27 strike vote, System Council U-8's headquarters building was adorned with defiant slogans including "FLORIDA POWER CORP. ROBBER BARONS 2002-STYLE," and "This Is My Final Answer......WALK."
Union members thought the company was asking for too many "takeaways" and that it wasn't making enough concessions on other items, Enyard said.
"They were pretty stirred up in the field over this thing," he said. "Emotions got high."
For its part, Florida Power warned it might lock out workers if they refused to accept a new contract, and it shipped in workers from the Carolinas this week to replace striking workers in the event of a walkout.
When the two sides met again Tuesday to start a new round of contract talks, they did so with the help of a federal mediator. With management and labor in separate conference rooms on the third floor of the Holiday Inn Express off of State Road 688 in Clearwater, they finally hashed out a tentative agreement Wednesday night.
Enyard said a deal became possible once the company dropped its demand for changes in arbitration procedures and agreed to retain a popular program that helps employees buy household appliances. "We didn't know if we were going to get out of there until the end," Enyard said.
The would-be replacement workers from CP&L were mostly supervisors and power-plant operators. Because Florida Power was prepared to use contractors for repair and service work in the event of a strike, none of CP&L's line or service personnel were sent to Florida, Progress Energy spokesman Keith Poston said.
That proved to be a fortuitous call in light of the severe winter weather that swept through the east coast Wednesday night and Thursday. With the Raleigh utility struggling Thursday to restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers, Florida Power sent about 100 line and service personnel to lend a helping hand.
That most of those workers were IBEW members was a point that wasn't lost on the company, according to Florida Power spokesman Aaron Perlut.
"Those guys going up today is a great example of what this company is about, working together as one team," Perlut said. "Our union employees are as hard working a group of individuals as you will find. Their commitment and hard work are what make this company run."
-- Louis Hau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3404
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