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Bridgeport WPCA Workers Hang Tough

Employees of the Bridgeport Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) are breathing a little easier as they head
into the holiday season.

A year ago, their futures hung in the balance as the City prepared to hire an English company to run the WPCA, which operates two wastewater treatment facilities and maintains the sewer system in Bridgeport.

“We didn’t know if we’d have our jobs or our union,” said Maintainer IV Mark Kron of AFSCME Local 1303-459, one of two Council 4 bargaining units representing plant and road employees. “It was nerve-wracking. I’ve got three kids. I was
socking away money, preparing for the worst.”

Kron and his co-workers have a brighter outlook thanks to a deep reservoir of patience, determination and old-fashioned
union solidarity that enabled WPCA employees to maintain their union rights and secure a fi rst contract with their new employer, Severn-Trent.

“It was definitely a struggle. We had to fight from the start,” said Plant Operator Alphonso Tindal of AFSCME Local 1303-
362, “but we stuck together as bargaining units. Th at gave us a lot more strength.”

The struggle to which Tindal refers has its roots in the City of Bridgeport’s decision to sub-contract plant management under the regime of former Mayor Joseph Ganim. The workers transitioned to the private sector, but kept their full rights as AFSCME members.

Late last year, however, the WPCA Board moved to hire a new plant operator to replace KGI, whose contract expired Dec. 31, 2013; unfortunately, the Request for Proposal (RFP) did not obligate the successor company to retain the current workforce or recognize the WPCA unions, including the two Council 4 units, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Teamsters.

That’s when the unions kicked into gear, holding a community rally and press conference, speaking before the WPCA Board of Commissioners and City Council and meeting with Mayor Bill Finch. Their message: The WPCA
was a public asset best protected by retainining a skilled workforce.

Once the City selected Severn-Trent, Local 1303-362 and 1303-459 members signed union authorization cards to present to their new employer. All of the 60-plus members signed cards indicating their desire to be a part of Council 4.

“Everybody worked together. It was unity in action,” said Local 1303-362 President Carlos Agosto, a Sewer Plant Maintainer.

Once Severn-Trent recognized the unions, tough negotiations lay ahead. With Staff Representative Tom Fascio and Service Representative Travis Cromack providing guidance, the two sides had to hammer out an interim agreement to carry through to the end of 2013 — and then a full agreement on a new contract. Absent a settlement, union members were looking at the possibility of being locked out and having to go on strike in the dead of winter.

“These were difficult negotiations,” Fascio commented. “The process took a year to complete. Everything was in jeopardy. We brought in a federal mediator and in the end, we were able to hold the line on some important issues like holiday pay and shift differentials.”

The mediation process yielded a tentative agreement that Council 4 members overwhelmingly ratified in September. (The Teamsters and IBEW also ratified similar contracts.)

The four-year contract included wage increases totaling 15% and an enhanced 401(k) plan featuring an employer match, with contributions toward retiree health care, too. The retirement savings plan was a key gain, as WPCA workers’ pensions closed when KGI got out of the business.

“We were pleased with the end result,” Fascio said.

WPCA workers echoed those sentiments.

“We’re grateful the union was there for us,” said Local 1303-459 President and Maintainer Freddy Torres, “and we’re grateful we had Tom and Travis from the beginning to help us get through this.”

Agosto added, “We did very well because we stuck together and had good representation from Council 4. Without that, we wouldn’t be standing here today.”

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