Lineman Ernie Lopez has been rousted out of bed on countless cold, rainy nights. He's climbed 100-foot utility poles in heavy winds and grabbed live electrical lines with nothing but a pair of rubber gloves to protect him.
But the hardest thing Lopez has done in 20 years at Southern California Edison is walk away from a darkened apartment building while residents pleaded for their heat.
It happened in late January. Sinking in debt, Edison had just announced drastic budget cuts, including a ban on most overtime. The new rule: If it's not a public safety problem, it has to wait until the next business day.
Edison's 990 linemen, as well as the people they left shivering in the dark, howled. Within a week, the utility loosened its overtime restriction. But Lopez had already done the unthinkable--twice--and remained shellshocked.
"You get the lights on at all costs. That was bred into us from the get-go," he said two weeks after leaving customers without power in Whittier and La Puente. "It's in the preamble of our [union] contract."
Months of uncertainty and bad press have chipped away at the pride linemen like Lopez once took in their jobs. Customers harangue him, complaining about rate increases and fat Edison salaries. Service levels are deteriorating. It's going to be a terrible summer. "I don't look forward to coming to work as much as I used to."
As Lopez drives toward an outage in Covina, he shouts into a cell phone over the rattling of his big white truck. "I just wish I knew what direction they're heading in," he says. "They're not telling us much. . . . We're not so sure they care about us or the customers anymore."
Edison Lacks Enough Veteran Linemen
This is bad news for anyone in Edison territory. The utility can't afford to alienate its veteran linemen because there aren't enough to go around. Journeymen are in short supply, drawing big signing bonuses and promises of generous overtime. Edison was trying to hire more than 100 when the financial crisis hit last summer. Now it faces the triple whammy of a hiring freeze, low morale and overtime pay cuts that could set off an exodus of talent.
Already, there have been some defections, including several to the flush cross-town rival, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Lopez and other veterans remain loyal, but they're checking the Internet, just in case. "Everybody's depressed, bummed out," he says.
Linemen like to see themselves as roughneck heroes, riding into town to turn on the lights, to help the kitty out of the tree. Many are loners, outsiders, proud of their cowboy culture. They don't tend to move up to office jobs. They prefer to be out in the field. They are well paid, but what many love even more are the small signs of gratitude, the cup of coffee from a customer, the sound of applause when the lights go back on.
"We don't do it for the money. We do it for the glory," says Lopez, almost serious.
Along with weathered faces and fallen arches from standing astride poles, most linemen have developed a rigid sense of civic duty. It is what makes them leave a warm bed and barge into a downpour at 3 a.m. They've missed birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas with the kids for their jobs. Every one of them has stories, of working through hurricanes, ice storms and earthquakes. Some have been close to death. Some have watched other linemen die.
"Our whole careers have been designed to provide people with power, not cut it off," says Pat Lavin, a veteran Edison lineman, now business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 47. "I think our members would probably offer to work for free if they thought it would help. They like working for Edison. It's a pride thing."
Team Spirit Takes a Hit
You see this ethos in Kansas City, home of the International Lineman's Rodeo. Every September, hundreds of utility field-worker teams pour in from as far as Jamaica and England to test their skills and stamina against other linemen.
They scramble up wooden poles in seconds, replace transformers and rescue "hurt man" dummies from the wires. In one event that tests focus as well as strength and dexterity, a lineman climbs a 45-foot pole holding the handle of a bucket in his teeth. In the bucket is an egg. At the top, the lineman ties the bucket to a wire, puts the egg in his mouth and climbs back down, taking care not to bite.
Last year, Edison's senior team--45 years and older--placed fourth out of 213. It was a huge coup and a career highlight for team member Joe Baker, a crew foreman and 25-year Edison veteran working out of the Barstow office. His parents came down from Iowa to watch. His wife and son--an Edison apprentice--were cheering from the bleachers. Baker had been training for months, and was in top form. "If you look at the scores," he notes, "you'll see that we were awfully close to first."