HUNTSVILLE, Al. - Officials from Huntsville Utilities, Joe Wheeler EMC and Decatur Utilities say they were not turned away by the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) for refusing to unionize.
A media firestorm erupted this morning after other local media outlets reported that utility crews from the Tennessee Valley were turned away after arriving in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.
WAAY 31's Shea Allen spoke with Ray Hardin, General Manager at Decatur Utilities, this morning. Hardin says "Its unfortunate that some comments from employees there were taken out of context."
Hardin says communication was difficult from the start and after their crews were stalled for more than a day, they made the decision to bring them home. He says the union never presented them with any agreement but that a state agency did warn them of potential problems with assisting union utility crews.
"I think its possible that an issue like this can be sensationalized and blown out a little bit. Its an election year. A union versus non union issue makes a lot of headlines and its really not that," says Hardin.
Hardin says they were never presented with an agreement asking them to join the union and that the issue is quickly being turned into something political.
Bill Yell with Huntsville Utilities says it is typical for "agreements" to be signed between power companies in disaster affected areas and the crews that come in from out of town to assist in the recovery.
"Its not a you just show up hey we're here...where do you want to start. You have to work out all those agreements before or as you are getting ready to go," says Yell.
Yell says typically, the local power authorities use FEMA money to reimburse assisting electrical crews for the wages they pay their employees. "There's a lot of things that have to be worked out when you do mutual aid. You have to have pay scales because we're going to pay our crews but then the union utility that we are working for is going to reimburse us," he explains.
Yell says these types of agreements are usually time consuming and arduous. He says the downed phone lines and lack of internet connection has made these agreements much more difficult.
A representative with IBEW says they are not requiring crews to "unionize" and that they never turned any assisting power crew away. They say both union and non-union crews are assisting in the recovery effort.
IBEW issued a statement saying quote, "It is the policy of this union and the companies we represent to welcome assistance during major natural disasters - regardless of union status."
UPDATED: 11/2/2012 at 4:51 p.m. to include quotes