Publisher’s Note: Every December, LaborPress selects those in labor and business that have demonstrated outstanding leadership in their trade and profession. This years’ recipients of the prestigious LaborPress Leadership Award are as follows: Mark Cannizzaro, president, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators [CSA]; James Slevin, national president, Utility Workers Union of America [UWUA]; Nicholas LaMorte, president, Civil Service Employees Association, Long Island Region [CSEA]; Mark Gregorio, president, TEI Group; and Matthew Chartrand, business manager/financial secretary-treasurer, Ironworkers Local 361.
James Slevin is the national president of the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA). He started as a utility worker in New York City in 1987, and was elected to office at Local 1-2 in 2005 as business agent. Then he was elevated to senior business agent, vice president, and president in 2013. He became national president in July, 2019.
The union itself was formed in 1947, representing workers in New York, Detroit and California, among other states. The workers worked in a variety of capacities: coal generation, line workers, call centers and distribution generation in the electrical industry. Today, their fields also include water, waste water, nuclear power, tree trimming, gas and electrical distribution and generation – and they are starting to venture into renewables, such as wind.
The membership is just under 50,000 and stretches across the country. There are five regions – across the majority of states. Slevin says that there are some challenges.
“As far as technology, automation has played a big role. As simple a thing as meter reading in the home is now being replaced by automation,” he says. “Now, we have remotes starting in power plants as opposed to operators. Also, inspections – now [we have] drones in sub-stations, power stations, and line clearance. All technology hasn’t impacted us, but there is some job loss. Other pieces have been changes from clerical workers like typewriters to computers. We have a training center to combat some of this.
“Our biggest concern,” he continues, “is as climate [change] issues go on, as technology changes, that the workers aren’t thrown aside. Power plant workers could be trained to work in other areas. In the past, coal changed to gas changed to nuclear – those people can be trained for the next generation of power plants, the skills of workers upgraded. For example, as a meter reader, jobs are impacted. We are trying to train [them] to troubleshoot meters instead of reading them.”
Slevin has been on board for recent victories, as well as the challenges. “Recently, First Energy in Ohio wanted to ignore a collective bargaining agreement [which we successfully fought]. Also, organizing in unorganized areas like Texas – we’ve made inroads in collective bargaining.”
He adds, “We have a continuing battle in a male-dominated field, [but] we’ve seen more females enter non-traditional workplaces.”
In the future, Slevin says there will be a faster change in industry – climate change and technology being two areas. “Making sure labor has a seat at the table [is key], not just for workers, but for the community, and so that workers can provide for their families. Also, in the past, most utility companies were owned by American companies [which is not the case today]. Today, the majority of utilities are owned by overseas companies. In New York, ConEd alone is owned by an American company. National Grid is British.”
“We have smart young men and women,” Slevin says, “we’re making sure they’re brought up on the latest innovative ideals.”