© Dennis Oda / doda@staradvertiser.comHawaiian Electric workers picketed yesterday at Archer Lane and King Street after about 1,300 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260 went on strike at 3:30 p.m.
Hawaiian Electric Co. used managers and outside contractors to repair storm-damaged power lines yesterday after its unionized work force walked off the job over a contract dispute.

HECO executives said the strike would slow efforts to restore service to about 8,000 Oahu homes and businesses, mostly in the Ewa Beach area, that were without power last night.

"We do have management crews out there to see what we can do about the Ewa Beach situation in particular this evening, and we will do our best to restore as much of that service as possible," said Robbie Alm, HECO executive vice president. "I don't want to guarantee that, obviously, we don't have our normal full crews out there."

About 1,300 HECO workers who are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260 went on strike at 3:30 p.m. yesterday and began walking picket lines on Oahu, the Big Island and in Maui County.

The workers rejected last month a tentative contract agreement reached between union leaders and management, setting the stage for the strike.

HECO workers said the two sides disagreed on a management proposal to raise the age of retirement with full benefits to 62 from 60; a proposed reduction in sick leave benefits; and a plan to create a two-tier contract with new hires receiving lower wages and benefits. There also was a dispute over whether negotiated wage increases should begin with ratification of a new contract or expiration of the previous contract last October. Neither company nor union officials would confirm the sticking points in the contract talks.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie urged HECO workers to make restoring power to all customers their priority.

"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."

Alm said the company and union have been holding contract talks since September. After the most recent negotiating session ended yesterday, the union called the strike, he said. Alm said 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 because HECO president and CEO Richard Rosenblum would not meet with their negotiating team.

"It's just circumstance," Ito said. "It wasn't like a strategic plan to say, 'Yeah, we're going to strike now because the power lines are down.'"

Alm said HECO hired contractors locally and from the mainland in anticipation of a strike. In addition, the company's 1,100 nonunionized workers have been assigned shifts to handle the work formerly done by union members.

"We were, as you can probably guess, preparing ourselves for this, so we do have management crews available and contractors who are assisting us," Alm said.

"We will do our best particularly with critical services and outages, but I do want to ask the public for its patience."

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. Cosma, who was on a picket line yesterday, 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," Cosma 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," Cosma said. "We tried for a long time to avoid this."

The striking workers do a range of jobs, including power plant operations, line work, meter reading and customer service. The IBEW represents 54 percent of the company's 2,380 workers on three islands.

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.

Quince Mento, Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator, 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 backup generators.

The county's Department of Water Supply is also equipped with backup power for its pumps in case of an emergency. Also, most local radio stations also have backup generators, Mento said.