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Pepco: Ready to keep the lights on in case of union strike

Thursday - 9/27/2012, 2:42pm  ET

WASHINGTON - Pepco's union has rejected the company's "last, best offer," but both sides are still talking.

The last time workers went on strike, it was 1985. The strike lasted for four days, says Jim Griffin, president and CEO of IBEW Local 1900.

"They were struggling even after four days to keep the system together. There were pockets of problems," Griffin says.

Pepco's spokesperson Myra Oppel disagrees with Griffin's characterization of that 1985 strike saying, "There was no material difference in service at that time," she says.

The union represents 1,150 Pepco workers, including line mechanics, substation technicians and underground cable splicers. Should the union vote to strike, Oppel says Pepco is ready to keep the lights on.

"We have employees that have been training for months to assume these positions, so we're confident that they are ready to do that if necessary," she says.

Should there be a storm-related outage, Oppel says the same mutual aid process that is normally employed would be used to bring additional crews in to assist.

As far as the ability of current workers to take on the field work, Oppel stresses, it's not as though call takers would be asked to get in bucket trucks to perform repairs.

"We'd have people who were already trained and qualified to be, for example an overhead lineman, performing that work," she says.

The two sides have been negotiating since April. Sticking points for the union include changes to health benefits and changing employee positions from full-time to part-time. The company wants to change up to 20 percent of call takers from full-time to part-time workers, Griffin says. If that happens, he says, it would have a direct effect on customer service.

In past hearings before the Public Service Commission, Pepco's storm response was slammed by ratepayers who said when they finally got through to live call takers, they often got incorrect information from staffers who seemed unfamiliar with the region. They said the call takers would also tell them their power had been restored as the customer was calling from a house without power.

The two sides are scheduled to meet Friday afternoon. A federal mediator is expected to attend that meeting. Oppel says it will not be the first time a mediator will be present for negotiations.

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow Kate and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)