Non-Union Utility Crew's Claim Of Being Rebuffed In NJ Comes Under Fire

Alabama utility crew New Jersey Hurricane Sandy
Out-of-state workers have been pouring into New Jersey to help with the recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy, but one Alabama-based utility crew claims that it returned home because of a requirement that all workers be union-affiliated. Labor officials, a New Jersey utility company and Gov. Chris Christie deny, however, that any such condition exists.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers presented Alabama-based Decatur Utilities with documents stating that any utility crew coming to help out had to be unionized, according to Decatur's general manager, Ray Hardin.

A six-member crew headed north for Seaside Heights, N.J., to help restore electricity, but ended up heading back home after they got to Virginia -- not because they were "turned away," Hardin told The Star-Ledger of Newark, but simply because they couldn't clarify whether they'd be allowed to work at all.

"That was something that we could not agree to," Hardin said of unionization to Fox Business on Friday. "It was our understanding and still is that it was a requirement for us to work in that area."

Unions have a much greater presence in New Jersey than Alabama: They accounted for 16 percent of workers in that Northeastern state in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 10 percent in the Southeastern one. (Alabama leads its region in union membership, however.)

But union officials completely deny that there was any such condition. "It is the policy of this union and the companies we represent to welcome assistance during major natural disasters -- regardless of union status," Jim Spellane, spokesman for the national office of the IBEW said in a statement. Gov. Christie said the Alabama crew got "bad information" and that non-union crews are welcomed in the recovery effort, according to The Associated Press. Jersey Central Power & Light, the New Jersey utility which provides power to Seaside Heights, is using non-union crews to help restore power.

The Seaside Heights municipal utility, which the Alabama workers were planning to assist, isn't even represented by the IBEW, according to Donald Siegel, the vice president of the IBEW's district officer in Philadelphia, which is responsible for locals in New Jersey Pennsylvania, and New York. He told The Star-Ledger that they couldn't find any evidence of the paperwork Hardin mentioned.

"I don't know where they got that correspondence," he said. "It didn't come from IBEW. It didn't come from any of the locals that I'm aware of."

Another Alabama utility Huntsville Utilities said the fact that it wasn't unionized didn't create any problems when they sent their crews to Seaside Heights. Their workers left the area and moved on to Long Island, communications manager Bill Yell told The Star-Ledger, simply because the state "had all the crews they could handle."

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