Shelby Energy workers unionize

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By Nathan L. McBroom

Local electrical workers are citing safety concerns as the reason they have voted to be represented by a labor union.

Employees of Shelby Energy Cooperative voted last month to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in their contractual dealings with the company. Curtis Stratton, president and business manager of the Local 2100, said workers decided to bring in the union because of mounting safety concerns within the company. "It all boils down to safety and fair representation,” he said. “Safety was one of their prime concerns.” Shelby Energy, an electricity and gas provider in Shelby and surrounding counties, is based in Shelbyville and has been in operation since 1937. This is the first time that the company’s workers have unionized. The union, which was voted in Oct. 16, represents all of the company’s 14 to 15 outside field personnel. The union, which was voted in with an 11-4 majority, has registered with the National Labor Relations Board and has asked the company to enter into contract negotiations with them. However, Stratton said, the company has yet to respond to their call for contract negotiations. Stratton said the company tried to prevent the union from forming and is sluggish to move forward with contract negotiations. Debbie Martin, president and CEO of Shelby Energy, said the company plans to meet with the union, but has not set a time for their meeting. Martin said the company is committed to the safety of their employees and contractors. "Our number one priority is safety," she said. Martin also denied the charge that the company tried to prevent the union from forming. ”Unions are a part of the business atmosphere,” she said. The unionization of the workers comes just a few weeks after the company was ordered to pay $15,000 in fines for safety violations - several of which are said to have contributed to the death of an electrical worker last year. Last month, the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC) announced that it has accepted a settlement with Shelby Energy over six safety violations. These violations, which range from failure of personnel to wear proper safety gear to inadequate vertical clearance of electrical wires, carried a maximum fine of $2,500 each. The fines were levied as a result of safety violations by one of Shelby Energy's former sub-contractors, Dobson Power. Under federal law, power companies are responsible for the safety practices of their contractors. And former Shelby Energy employees, who spoke anonymously, said the root of the safety violation was Shelby Energy, not Dobson Power. The safety violations were discovered after an employee of Dobson Power, Cosby Carroll, fell to his death from an aerial bucket truck on Nov. 12, 2007. Carroll, who was installing new distribution lines for Shelby Energy in Bagdad, was not wearing the required safety harness. He was 34. No lawsuit has been filled against Shelby Energy because of the death. And that wasn’t the first time that Shelby Energy has been fined over safety violations - nor was it the first time they've proven fatal. Andrew Melnykovych, director of communications for the PSC, said in 2006 the commission fined Shelby Energy $5,000 for two safety violations that were discovered after a worker was electrocuted to death. Martin said the company no longer contracts business to Dobson and the safety issues that led to violations have been addressed.