French Water Company Problems Highlight What Happens Under Privatization

by James Parks

The Utility Workers (UWUA), along with the safe food advocacy group Food & Water Watch, this week filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), over the labor and environmental practices of United Water, a U.S. water utility and a subsidiary of French multinational Suez Environment.

Yesterday, the AFL-CIO met with the labor attaché from the French Embassy to raise concerns about Suez Environment and to discuss the OECD compliant.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued complaints charging United Water with illegal bargaining tactics. As UWUA President Michael Langford says:

Utility workers have been astonished at the bad faith conduct of United Water in labor negotiations in the U.S.

Negotiations stalled after United Water demanded steep cuts in its employee retirement benefits. Currently UWUA members are working under expired labor agreements in four states—Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

The problems at United Water are to be expected when governments allow water systems to be managed for private profit and not the public good, says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.  

When water services are privatized, the environment and workers lose out, as some of the examples in this petition to the OECD illustrate. Consumers are on the losing end as well, often seeing worse service at a higher cost with private water management.  Communities, workers and the environment in the U.S. take a back seat to shareholders in Europe and elsewhere when water services are privatized.

Last month, the NLRB issued a complaint charging United Water Pennsylvania with illegally refusing to provide information necessary for the UWUA to negotiate over the company’s demands for concessions in retirement benefits for workers.  The NLRB also authorized a similar complaint against United Water in New Jersey.

In December 2010, a federal grand jury issued a criminal indictment charging that United Water intentionally manipulated E. coli bacteria monitoring tests at a wastewater treatment plant in Gary, Ind., between 2003 and 2008.  The company has pleaded not guilty in the case. The indictment charges that United Water manipulated the monitoring results as part of a scheme to reduce its costs for purchasing chlorine, which is used as a disinfectant before the plant discharges treated sewage into a public waterway near Chicago.

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