Labor dispute intensifies at Pennsylvania-American Water Co.

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Early Thursday morning, water gushed from four fire hydrants in Bethel Park. The cascade wasn’‍t business as usual, police say — not part of cleanup or maintenance — but foul play. 

Pennsylvania-American Water Co. said the early-morning deluge brings the number of fire hydrant tamperings to 14 since June. The incidents come during an ongoing dispute between the company, the largest water and wastewater utility in the state, and its Pittsburgh-area employees, about 144 members of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 537 who walked off the job on June 18.

In the company’‍s view, it is a “remarkable coincidence that the highest volume of hydrant tampering we’‍ve ever seen has occurred since those employees left their jobs on June 18,” according to spokeswoman Josephine Posti.

Bethel Park police Chief John Mackey called it “more than a coincidence,” laying implicit blame on the striking workers.

The local, meanwhile, contends the charges are unfounded, motivated by the utility’‍s longstanding animus against union members, stoked by the recent labor standoff. Local 537 members have been without a contract since May 2011.

“I can tell you flat out that there are no utility workers opening fire hydrants,” Local 537 President J. Kevin Booth said. “The company is trying to make the utility workers look bad, like we’‍re sabotaging service. The truth is our people are busy on the picket lines.”

Mr. Booth said the company has no proof its employees are responsible for the tampering, a point Penn-American concedes. “We have no direct evidence,” Ms. Posti said. But police are on the lookout for culprits, Chief Mackey said, hoping security footage will aid in the search.

He said the tamperings, which are a federal crime, endanger public safety: “God forbid we have a house fire and there's not sufficient water pressure for the firefighters to do their job.”

Police also have been dispatched to work sites, where “the water company is concerned for the safety and well-being of their employees and property,” Chief Mackey said. Picketing-related incidents have brought police to North Strabane and to an employee’‍s home in Upper St. Clair, among other work sites, Ms. Posti said.

Upper St. Clair police have stepped up patrols surrounding the homes of Penn-American management, but have so far not responded to any picketing incidents, Chief Doug Burkholder said. 

The union said it’‍s the company that has behaved improperly along the picket line. Samuel J. Pasquarelli, attorney for Local 537, said he has filed between 25 and 30 charges of unfair labor practice with the Pittsburgh regional office of the National Labor Relations Board since the strike began last month — more than he has filed as the union’‍s legal counsel in the past 40 years.

Those complaints pertain to everything from improper video taping to allegations that employees were prohibited from wearing union buttons, according to Patricia Daum, supervisory field attorney for Pittsburgh’‍s NLRB office. She said the charges have high-priority classification and will be investigated in a six- to seven-week time frame.

The principal charge s that the company altered terms of employment, seeking to change the share of labor contracted out to non-union workers. That move makes the present situation a lockout, the union claims. The company replied that there is no lockout and urged employees to return to work, but Mr. Pasquarelli said employees seeking simply to retrieve personal belongings have been barred from company facilities.

Ms. Posti said the local turned down the company‘‍s “last, best and final offer,” which included a $2.2 per hour wage increase, over the average $67,000 yearly compensation union employees receive, she said. Mr. Pasquarelli said this increase is meaningless if employees do not have job security and control over the terms of their employment.

Isaac Stanley-Becker:, 412-263-3775 or on Twitter @isb_isaac.

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