Wednesday, September 22, 1999
TONY HOPFINGER, Daily News reporter

Nearly 3,600 electrical workers who labored on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in the 1970s will split $18 million in a settlement with the Alaska Electrical Pension Fund.

It's the fifth, and possibly last, settlement involving thousands of pipeline-construction workers who were deprived of pensions after working on the $9 billion project two decades ago, said Richard Birmingham, the Seattle lawyer who has represented most of the union workers since the first lawsuit was filed in 1989.

"At this point, I'm not getting any more calls," he said Tuesday.

The latest settlement was reliminarily approved last week in Washington state District Court, he said. The Alaska Electrical Pension Fund in Anchorage, which handles pensions for the Anchorage-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547, has agreed to pay 3,577 former members who were laid off between Jan. 1, 1978 and Dec. 31, 1979, Birmingham said.

The settlement should be finalized Dec. 16, he said.

Those who may qualify have until Dec. 31 to claim their share of the settlement.

So far, 2,506 people have filed claims, including 248 Alaskans, he said. Officials at the Alaska Electrical Trust Fund in Anchorage, which administers the retirement benefits, declined comment Tuesday, but confirmed that the Internal Revenue Service had sent a notice to eligible individuals.
Bruce McKenzie, the Seattle lawyer for the Electrical Pension Fund, was out of town Tuesday and couldn't be reached for comment. In a written statement, he said his client chose to settle partly to avoid "the expense and uncertainty of continued litigation."

The dispute between pipeline construction workers and union pensions goes back to 1974, when oil companies agreed to industry wide contracts with Alaska unions to build the trans-Alaska oil pipeline between 1974 and 1977.

Union members were given generous benefits and paid some of the highest wages in their trades nationwide at the time.

But thousands of workers never collected pensions because they were laid off between 1977 and 1980, well before they could become eligible for benefits.
In most cases, the Alaska pension plans had required union members to work for at least 10 years to gain benefits and prohibited the transfer of pension standing to other unions in other states.
Since the late 1980s, former union pipeline workers have fought to claim their pensions. They argue that a provision in the pension plans required workers to become vested, or eligible for benefits, in the event of a layoff of more than 20 percent of workers, which happened in a number of cases as the pipeline was completed.
Not only has this legal argument helped electrical workers reclaim their pensions in last week's settlement, Birmingham has also used it to win settlements for Teamsters, carpenters, operational engineers and other skilled workers.

"These lawsuits have brought about a further awareness of how union (pension) plans operate," Birmingham said. "It's also helped to shorten the vesting period for unions to five years."

Claims for the new settlement may be sent to Alaska Electrical Pension Fund Litigation, c/o Davis Wright Tremaine, 2600 Century Square, 1501 Fourth Ave., Seattle, WA 98101.

* Reporter Tony Hopfinger can be reached at thopfinger@adn.com

Related Links
  • Anchorage Daily News-- Anchorage Daily News Website
  • Trans-Alaskan-- The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline


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