While rank-and-file members of one union at the V.I. Water and Power Authority are skeptical of the proposal to sell 80 percent of the public utility to Southern Energy, the leader of another isn’t so critical.
Despite Southern Energy’s assurance that it won’t "colonize" the power system, the WAPA Employees Association leadership recently took out a newspaper ad saying that a majority of its 400 members, made up of non-managerial production, maintenance and clerical workers, have voted to oppose the proposed sale.
Among other issues, union officials see the deal as a potential threat to WAPA employees’ jobs and retirement packages.
"A decision to sell would bring a one-time cash windfall for the government, but not enough to solve the government’s financial problems," the ad stated. "And when that money is gone, what are we left with? Our biggest income-generating asset is gone and the government still will be unable to pay its own electric bill."
But Ralph Mandrew of the V.I. Workers Union, which represents 62 WAPA supervisors, said that while he’s not openly advocating the deal, he’s not opposing it either. One of the main reasons is that he has a "15-page letter from Southern Energy guaranteeing the continued employment of my people."
"It seems to me that they (Southern Energy) are coming out with a proposal that will be hard to refuse," Mandrew said.
Even though negotiations between the V.I. government and Southern for the sale of WAPA, believed to be in the neighborhood of $80 million, are ongoing and details unavailable, the company is conducting an active public relations campaign. Radio advertisements feature seemingly satisfied employees from the company’s power operations in Trinidad and the Bahamas. The company has also sponsored events and programs in the community.
All the effort, said Southern Energy spokesman Chuck Griffin, is to introduce the company to not only the island’s residents but to the utility’s workers.
"I think the ads, to some degree, are to make the employees comfortable," Griffin said. "It’s going to take some time to develop trust. Ultimately we think we’ll be able to reach that level."
Griffin said that if Southern Energy does purchase a portion of WAPA, a main focus will be on making the utility more efficient. He added, though, that efficiency isn’t synonymous with layoffs. Conceding that there may be changes made in management, Griffin said reworking negotiated union contracts isn’t part of the streamlining formula.
"We’re looking to make efficiencies in the process. There’s a way to go about that without impacting people," Griffin said. "We know WAPA has some very good people in place. It’s still going to be local people."
"We’re not in any way going to try to colonize the power system. Beyond that, it goes to that trust issue."
Mandrew, meanwhile, said he has no sympathy for WAPA’s upper management. He said that in his last three contract negotiations off-island arbitrators had to be called in.
"I’m not going to cry in my beer over the people at the top," he said.

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