• The Star Staff

LUMA says it will welcome the unionization of its workforce

By The Star Staff

Executives from LUMA Energy and its subsidiaries Quanta Services and ATCO have said Thursday that workers employed by the private operator are free to unionize.

“The way this works is LUMA will hire employees. When or if employees choose to form a union on their behalf, they will do that and LUMA will welcome that with open arms,” said LUMA Energy President Wayne Stensby.

Under a heavy police force, LUMA Energy officials on Thursday broke ground on the future LUMA College for Technical Training, a training facility being funded by LUMA parent companies ATCO and Quanta Services.

Outside of the facilities, dozens of Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER by its Spanish acronym) members protested against LUMA Energy, which as the operator of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) transmission and distribution (T&D) system, refuses to acknowledge the acquired rights under the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

UTIER is the main union representing PREPA workers.

The college site will become fully operational in phases over the next few months to train technical workers as part of the “transformation of the power utility,” officials said.

“LUMA College represents a substantial investment, brings safety first to concrete reality,” Stensby said during the groundbreaking ceremony. “Here, our employees will develop the skills to rebuild the electrical infrastructure.”

“Nothing will deter us from our mission,” he added.

LUMA Energy is slated to take over control of bankrupt PREPA’s T&D system on June 1. The contract, signed last summer, is currently in the front-end transition phase. Under the 15-year contract, PREPA will pay LUMA a fixed annual rate that will start at $70 million the first year, increase to $90 million the second year, and to $100 million the third year along with incentive payments for meeting certain goals.

The LUMA College campus is being built on a 24-acre plot in the San Isidro Industrial Park in the municipality of Canóvanas. The town’s mayor, Lornna Soto, said she went after government officials to bring the LUMA facility to her municipality. The project will provide 50 jobs during the construction phase.

“There is no other opportunity in the world to build a world class, resilient electrical grid that brings a brighter future for tomorrow,” said Nancy Southern, chairwoman and CEO of ATCO, during the groundbreaking ceremony.

The facility will include an outdoor training yard, a learning lab and classrooms, administrative offices, and equipment and parking. LUMA College will offer customized education and practical training for LUMA employees and the next generation of skilled electrical workers in Puerto Rico. The LUMA College for Technical Training and its programs are modeled after the Northwest Lineman College, a leading technical training institution run by Quanta Services that has four campuses across the mainland United States.

Earl Duke Austin, CEO of Quanta Services, said students who graduate from one of several Quanta Services colleges go out to better jobs with good pay, comparing them to doctors.

“I rest my legacy on this company and this transformation,” he said about PREPA’s transformation of its T&D system from a public entity to one under private management. “Let a hurricane come, we will run to it,” he added, in obvious reference to complaints that the LUMA Energy contract contains terms that will allow the private consortium to cancel the contract following a major natural event such as a hurricane.

LUMA is assuming that it will operate under the terms of the “supplemental terms of the agreement” portion of its contract, because PREPA has yet to file a debt adjustment plan as part of its bankruptcy, which began in 2017. That agreement would allow contract cancellation in the event PREPA does not complete the bankruptcy process in 18 months.

There are some 22 conditions that LUMA must meet before taking over in June, including having a Treasury order that grants it certain tax benefits and a tax opinion to the effect that PREPA’s bonds will not be adversely impacted by the process.

Stensby said “we have a fairly large number of items to be clear” and “we are confident that for the first of June we are going to clear on a lot of those requirements.”

While Stensby has said he would need 3,800 workers to operate PREPA’s T&D system, he has declined to divulge the exact number of workers who have been hired. He insisted that “[o]ur workforce is growing,” adding that some 14,000 people outside of PREPA are seeking jobs with LUMA.

Austin said Quanta will provide any workers if LUMA falls short of staffing requirements.

“We want the people of PREPA to join LUMA. Their knowledge is very important to getting started and I don’t know why there is hesitancy,” Southern said, adding that the college is for everyone in PREPA.

If the PREPA workers decide to create a union within LUMA Energy, the executives said they will welcome them. Stensby said Quanta has unionized workers.

Austin said he is pro-union.

“It is something I am passionate about. We work with unions daily,” he said. “We want as a company to provide better wages and have a good safety record.”