NORTH TOWANDA - A nationwide strike in the pipeline construction industry spread to North Towanda Township Monday.

Several Teamsters Union members picketed Otis Eastern Service Inc.'s field office on U.S. Route 6 as part of the strike, which started last week against other contractors who are members of the Pipe Line Contractors Association, said Charles Joyce, president of Otis Eastern Service, a pipeline construction company headquartered in Wellsville, N.Y.

Otis Eastern is one the more than 70 pipeline construction contractors nationwide that make up the Pipe Line Contractors Association.

The impasse in the negotiations between the PLCA and the Teamsters Union centers on how the companies that comprise the PLCA will pay for Teamster employees' retirement benefits, according to Joyce and the Teamsters Union.

The Teamsters issued a press release on Jan. 3 claiming that the PLCA has made unreasonable demands during the negotiations that would "gut workers' retirement security."

In response, the PLCA says the Teamsters Union is misrepresenting its position to the media and that the Teamsters wants the PLCA to continue to contribute to Teamster pension funds whose serious financial problems will put workers' retirement benefits at risk.

Joyce said that only one of 90 workers employed at Otis Eastern's North Towanda field office went on strike. However, other individuals who do not work for Otis Eastern but who are represented by Teamsters Union locals in the region are also picketing at the North Towanda field office, he said.

In addition, approximately 15 workers employed at the North Towanda field office - who are not members of the Teamsters Union - have also ceased working, as they have refused to cross the picket lines at the site, Joyce said. These workers, who are primarily involved in welding, have affected the field office's operations, said Joyce, who said the company's activities that are based out of the field office have been reduced to about 75 percent of what they normally would be.

The workers based at the field office are involved with constructing pipelines for Chesapeake Energy Corp., Joyce said.

The strike started with about 200 Teamsters in Pennsylvania and West Virginia walking off the job, according to the Teamsters' press release.

Hundreds more Teamsters members were also preparing to strike, the press release said.

"The highly trained and skilled workers (who are on strike) perform the difficult driving tasks related to hauling and laying pipe at pipeline construction sites," the Teamsters' press release also said. "The National Pipe Line Agreement between the Teamsters and the Pipe Line Contractors Association (PLCA) expired Jan. 31, 2011, but was extended twice, ultimately expiring on Dec. 31, 2011.

PLCA wants to force Teamsters into a 401(k) savings plan and ultimately eliminate all traditional defined benefit pensions, the Teamsters' release said. Traditional pensions offer more security to workers because they provide a set, monthly income at retirement despite the instability and unpredictability of Wall Street, the Teamsters' release said.

"The association's ultimate goal is to gut workers' security and gamble their retirement in the stock market with a 401(k) plan," said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa, as quoted in the press release. "This is yet another example of the rich getting richer on the backs of the middle class.

But Joyce said the Teamster pension funds that the PLCA has been contributing to "are underfunded and are going bankrupt."

For example, in 2010, the Central States Pension Fund, which is probably the largest Teamsters pension fund that the PLCA has contributed to, spent $2.9 billion in pension payments and administrative costs, while only receiving $688 million in revenue, Joyce said.

The PLCA wants to avoid having to pay into these financially troubled Teamster pension funds and being saddled with having to help pay the retirement benefits for employees who never worked in the pipeline industry, Joyce said.

Forcing the PLCA to contribute to Teamster pension funds "is bad for the workers because they'll work for years and then won't end up with a pension" due to the serious problems facing Teamster pension funds, Joyce said.

The PLCA also said the Teamsters Union was incorrect when it stated in its press release that the PLCA considers a 401(K) plan as the only option it would accept for Teamster employees' retirement benefit.

Joyce explained that the PLCA is willing to consider establishing a pension fund for Teamster employees working in the pipeline industry, which the companies that comprise the PLCA would contribute to. The fund would provide a "defined benefit plan" for pipeline Teamsters, according to a press release from the PLCA.

The two men picketing early Monday afternoon at the North Towanda field office said they were told not to talk to the press. They referred questions to Teamsters Local 229 in Scranton. The Review's attempts to reach anyone at the Teamsters Local 229 office on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.