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Utility union workers strike

Gas workers for the Northern Pipeline Co. in Medford went on strike Monday, demanding better pay and improved safety training for employees.

Employees had been on the job without a labor contract since Feb. 15 when negotiations fell through between members of the Local 609 union and the NPL.

The Utility Workers Union for America cited a poor track record of safety, fair labor practices and paying a livable wage, in a press release. The strike will continue until the two sides agree to a new contract, according to Chauffé Schirmer, a national representative for UWUA.

A NPL spokesperson could not be reached Monday for comment.

Schirmer — who stood with picketers Monday outside the company’s headquarters at 5245 Crater Lake Highway — said NPL has not budged on its positions from February when the contract expired. “The NPL hasn’t shown [its] willingness to compromise to reach a deal,” Schirmer said at the picket line. “That’s why we thought it was necessary to strike.”

After the contract expired, UWUA filed unfair labor practice charges against the company, according to the press release.

Robert Laidlaw, 38 — a pipe fuser who has worked for NPL for three years — said the way NPL trains its employees falls short of good safety standards.

“All your training to fit pipe is done in an afternoon,” Laidlaw said, who added that training consists of watching a video, a little hands-on work, and a computer test.

A big part of an NPL worker’s job involves digging up gas lines and repairing leaks, so inexperienced laborers pose a serious risk to community safety, according to Laidlaw.

“They don’t know what’s dangerous and what’s not dangerous.” he said, adding that NPL does not require apprenticeship training for workers to be certified in this area.

Laidlaw said he had to be a union representative for someone who installed a fitting wrong on more than one occasion.

UWUA President Jim Slevin said in a February statement that multiple improper gas connections were discovered in March 2019. There were more than 25 serious safety incidents in 2018, according to the UWUA release.

“They know it takes years of literally hands-on training to do it right and safely,” Laidlaw said, attributing the lack of training to the company’s high turnover rate. “They can’t train someone for two years if they’re not going to be here for two years.”

Schirmer and Laidlaw point to low pay — starting as low as $15 an hour for some jobs, they said — and a lack of benefits — no paid vacation days or holidays and a lack of pension — as reason why NPL employees decide not to stay too long.

Slevin said in a February statement that NPL was putting profits over the community’s safety.

“The company’s failure to address the issues that create safety problems threatens the public and places those who do this difficult and dangerous work in harm’s way,”

For Laidlaw, the way employees are working now is not sustainable.

“We’ll be here till we get it resolved,” he said. “Whether it’s two days or two months.”

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneUtility Workers Union for America strike Monday outside Northern Pipeline Co. headquarters on Crater Lake Highway.