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SoCal Gas, union make tentative pact, avoid strike

Both sides were prepared for a strike. And, prior to the late-night agreement, a walkout of most of Southern California Gas Co.'s 7,600 workers had seemed certain.

February 02, 2009|Ronald D. White

Southern California Gas Co. has reached a tentative contract accord with union negotiators, averting a strike by most of its 7,600 employees.

SoCal Gas, the nation's largest natural gas distribution utility, and Local 132 of the Utility Workers Union of America agreed on a new three-year labor contract near midnight Saturday, said officials from both sides of the negotiations.

The deal, which still must be approved this month by the union's rank and file to go into effect, averted a walkout that had begun to seem inevitable. As late in the day as Saturday afternoon, little progress appeared to have been made on the most contentious issues involving healthcare and pension funding.

A federal mediator sat in on negotiations, and utility executives made contingency plans, which included tapping management employees to fill in so that service wouldn't be interrupted.

But with both sides prepared for a strike, agreements were reached, in part with the help of Julie Gutman, senior labor advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who spent time discussing the negative consequences of a utility strike in the midst of recession, union officials said.

The agreement covers the gas company's 5,800 union workers, including meter readers and technicians who inspect equipment and relight homeowners' pilot lights. The Los Angeles utility also employs 1,800 management personnel and nonunion workers.

Union workers voted Jan. 25 to authorize a walkout if negotiations failed. Officials from Local 132 said more than 3,000 members turned out and voted 4 to 1 in favor of it.

It was unusual for what had been one of the region's least contentious labor negotiations, which often take place far from the public eye. The union hasn't gone on strike since 1993, and that walkout lasted only a day.

If approved, the contract would provide a 10.5% wage increase, phased in over the life of the contract, and preserve the current pension. The wage increase would be retroactive to Oct. 1, which marked the end of the old contract. That pact had been extended twice during the negotiations.

Other details of the new contract weren't released, pending the notification of union members.

"It's a fair agreement," said John Duffy, lead union negotiator and national vice president of the Utility Workers Union of America, who credited a united stand by Local 132 and the backing of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and its executive secretary-treasurer, Maria Elena Durazo. "It's good for all of our union members. It's good for the gas company too."

Denise King, a spokeswoman for SoCal Gas, said the utility was "pleased to have reached a tentative agreement that will alow us to continue to provide excellent service to our customers and a fair package of wages and benefits to our employees."

The utility is a subsidiary of San Diego-based Sempra Energy and serves about 20.3 million customers in Southern California, from Visalia to the Mexican border.

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ron.white@latimes.com

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