A strike today by the union that represents the majority of Hawaiian Electric Co.’s workforce will slow efforts to restore power to about 8,000 customers still without electricity on Oahu, the company said.
IBEW Local 1260 members walked off the job on Oahu, the Big Island and in Maui County at about 3:30 p.m. after contract talks reached a stalemate.
The strike comes as the utility is working to restore power to homes and businesses on Oahu as a result of a severe storm.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie released a statement tonight encouraging both sides to keep talking.
"I have spoken with leaders of Hawaiian Electric Co. and the union. My thought is that they can set aside their respective positions during this emergency situation until the public’s safety is taken care of," the governor said. "The most important thing right now is restoring electric services for residents and ensuring their health and security then resume negotiations."
When asked what effect the strike will have on the effort to restore power, HECO executive vice president Robbie Alm said, "It’s going to be slow."
Alm spoke at a 5 p.m. news conference. He said the company and union held talks today on a new contract. When the talks ended, the union walked off the job, Alm said. He added that there is no schedule to return to the table, but the company is ready to do so at any time.
Stanford Ito, IBEW strike captain, said workers did not plan to go on strike on such a busy day for the company and its workers. He said the strike came today because HECO president and CEO Richard Rosenblum would not meet with their negotiating team.
"It’s just circumstance. It wasn’t like a strategic plan to say ‘yeah, we’re going to strike now because the power lines are down.’
"It’s because (Rosenblum) doesn’t want to negotiate. If he cared about this contract and us not walking out, he would be here but they said he was off-island," said Ito, a HECO substation technician.
About two dozen union workers hit the picket lines about 4:30 p.m. at the HECO facility between Archer Lane and Ward Avenue in Kakaako.
One of the points of contention between union members is retirement benefits. HECO employees currently are allowed to retire with full benefits at age 60.
Jason Sampang, a cable splicer, was among those walking the picket line fronting One Archer Lane, one of the entrances to HECO’s Ward Avenue baseyard.
He said picketers were to be at the downtown HECO headquarters, all three power plants on Oahu — Honolulu, Kahe, and Waiau — and all three baseyards at Ward, Koolau, and Waiau, 24 hours a day.
"We’re only asking them to be fair," Sampang said. "They don’t even want to meet with us."
"I hope it don’t last long," he continued. "I hope we end this in good faith, peacefully and quickly.
"Nobody wants to go on strike. We love our jobs. We just got to stick together," he said.
Police were on hand to help direct traffic.
HECO said as part of its planning it has trained nonunion employees to "step in and operate our electric systems to provide our customers with the safe, reliable electric service they expect and deserve."
"We are disappointed that the union has chosen to take this action, especially since there are still thousands of customers without power following the severe weather that hit overnight," HECO officials said in a news release.
"We have been working to arrive at an agreement that balances the interests of our employees and our customers, and are willing to continue to negotiate," HECO said.
Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were at the union’s Honolulu headquarters this afternoon picking up signs to take to the picket line. The white signs had black lettering with the name of the union and its logo.
The IBEW represents about 1,280 workers — roughly 54 percent of the company’s employees — at HECO on Oahu, at Maui Electric Co., and at Hawaii Electric Light Co. on the Big Island. Those workers perform a range of jobs, including power plant operations, line work, meter reading and customer service.
Jason Cosma, who works on utility poles for HECO on Oahu, said he was scheduled to work until midnight but walked off the job in support of the union. He said he was fighting to preserve benefits such as sick leave and retirement that the company wants to take away.
"We’re not asking for more money. It’s just respecting what we had," he said. He said striking was the last resort after talks were unproductive since the contract ended in October.
"It’s the last thing we all wanted," he said. "We tried for a long time to avoid this."
Kauai is not affected by the strike because the electricity service there is provided by the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.
Maui County officials said that they had "taken every precaution to prepare for the potential of a MECO strike."
Keith Regan, the county’s managing director, has instructed all departments to test their generators and to have all fuel tanks topped off and ready for operation in the unlikely event of a disruption in service, according to a county statement.
"We hope that both sides can resolve their differences quickly," said Mayor Alan Arakawa. "In the meantime, the county will take all the necessary steps to ensure the safety of our citizens."
Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator Quince Mento said Hawaii Electric Light Co. has informed the county that it has more than 100 management personnel to take over operations for striking workers.
"They will do their best to take care of operations," Mento said.
The county’s emergency first responders, including police, fire and civil defense, are equipped with back-up generators.
The county’s Department of Water Supply is also equipped with back-up power for its pumps in case of an emergency. Also most local radio stations also have back-up generators, Mento said.
Fortunately, the Big Island’s weather forecast is not as bad as Oahu’s, Mento said.
Star-Advertiser reporters Alan Yonan, Rob Shikina, and Kristen Consillio contributed to this report.