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Union officials claim CNG is stalling contract negotiations

by Troy Graham


Little progress has been made between CNG and union officials on contract negotiations, and the company could be stalling talks until after a centennial celebration for sister company Hope Gas on Sept. 17, union officials said Wednesday.

"That's what the grumbling and the rumor mill is. They don't want to rain on the party," said gas workers Local Union 999 President Charles Rittenhouse. "We're just speculating because we haven't seen anything major (on negotiations)."

CNG officials said negotiators are not factoring the celebration into the talks.

"To my knowledge there's no correlation. They're two separate functions," said spokesman Bob Fulton. "The employees are really what made the company what it is."

The union picketed during contract talks in 1995, including during the Italian Festival, Rittenhouse said. The company may be trying to avoid a repeat during their centennial celebration, he said.

If company negotiators wait until after the celebration to discuss major issues, it will only leave two weeks to reach an agreement before the contract for the Allegheny Mountain Gas Workers expires on Oct. 1, he said.

The union will consider striking at that time if an agreement has not been reached, Rittenhouse said. At the beginning of the month Rittenhouse said he did not anticipate a strike would be necessary.

"I don't think anyone anticipates a strike when they begin negotiating," he said this week. "But, if push comes to shove, we will stand up for ourselves and do what's necessary."

A strike could lead to disaster for customers who depend on natural gas to heat their homes in the winter.

"We're real concerned about the public," Rittenhouse said. "There's a big difference between UPS not delivering a package and you not having heat."

The company could continue to operate "to some degree" by using management to replace the regular workers, Rittenhouse said.

"Now if they had things starting to go wrong, like compressors going down or lines freezing, they'd have a pretty big burden," he said.

Fulton said the company is prepared to handle a strike, but would not say what specific plans had been made.

"The main theme is that they're confident of reaching an agreement by the deadline," he said. "We are prepared, as any responsible company should be, to meet the responsibility to the customers to provide gas service."

Major proposals have been put forth by the union on several topics for the last two weeks without any response from the company, Rittenhouse said.

"They say they're studying them but they're not coming back to the table with any proposals," he said.

The company has responded to several offers, Fulton said. He would not elaborate, saying the company does not want to comment on continuing negotiations.

"We have a really dedicated negotiation team and they want to get it done," Fulton said.

Some of the issues center around bid proposals on jobs, safety, the grievance procedure, job security and the company's health plan. One of the biggest issues of any contract talks Ñ pay raises Ñ has not yet been discussed, Rittenhouse said.

Both sides may have to begin working longer hours and working over the weekends to reach a tentative agreement by the Oct. 1 deadline, he said.

"It's possible, but it's going to take some long hard hours," Rittenhouse said.

The union represents more than 1,100 workers in five states.