About 150 employees of Enstar Natural Gas Co. -- the largest natural gas utility in Alaska, serving more than 137,000 residential and commercial customers -- went on strike at 6 a.m. Monday.
The operational employees, about 100 repair and maintenance workers in Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 367, called the strike after rejecting Enstar's latest contract offer. The contract was accepted by about 50 clerical employees represented by the union in a closed vote, but operational employees still strongly rejected it, union officials said.
Union business manager Greg Walker said that emergency dispatchers would continue to work until managers could relieve them on Monday.
The clerical workers represented by the union have accepted Enstar's contract offer but are still allowed to strike, Walker said. Whether they would go to work would be left up to individual employees, he said.
The strike comes after months of negotiations between the utility and its union members. Issues dividing the sides include retirement benefits and health benefits. Union representatives said Enstar wants all new employees to be covered under a 401(k) retirement plan -- a change from the mix of pension and 401(k) now offered to Enstar employees.
"The employees seriously feel that this is the first step to taking away their defined benefit plan, as well," Walker said. "And if you think about it, the employees are fighting for future employees, employees that haven't been hired yet," Walker said.
Enstar has said it was ready for a possible strike and had a contingency plan should the union employees walk off the job.
"We are not in the position to provide any comments on the work stoppage," said Enstar's director of business development, John Sims. "We continue to work to provide safe and reliable service for our customers."
According to information provided by the union, Enstar's offer would cost the company more money than the one offered by union negotiators. Walker said Enstar offered a 5 percent 401(k) match to new employees plus 2 percent in profit-sharing.
Walker claimed that the defined benefits (pension) plan Enstar employees now receive is over-funded by about 5 percent, meaning that the plan poses no financial burden to Enstar.
Picketing at Enstar's headquarters on Spenard Road in Midtown Anchorage began Monday morning.
Walker said his members were prepared for a long fight over the contract negotiations and were unlikely to give in on the pension plan demands.