Friday, July 27, 2018

Off the Grid

"National Grid locks out gas workers" by Alex Gailey Globe Correspondent  June 25, 2018

More than 1,200 gas workers have been locked out by National Grid after months of failed contract negotiations.

The dispute came to a head early Monday morning when workers were denied access to various National Grid facilities across the state.

Two unions representing 1,250 gas workers voted last week of authorize a strike, days before their contract expired at midnight Sunday. Negotiations continued until 6 a.m. Monday with no resolution and the company locked out the workers.

“We’re quite stunned and shocked,” Billy Hunter, who has been a gas worker for 40 years, said outside the National Grid building in Malden. “We showed up in uniforms, ready to work, to find we’re literally locked out of the facility.”

National Grid serves more than 1.9 million gas and electric customers in 85 communities in Massachusetts.

United Steel Workers Locals 12003 and 12012 said the strike authorization was in response to concerns over safety risks, the use of more contractors, cuts in wages and benefits, and changes in overtime hours. The unions argue that contractors are less experienced and more prone to accidents, such as a gas leak that occurred in Providence last year.

The unions rejected the company’s latest proposed benefit package for new hires, including pension cuts and changes to health care, as well as outsourcing to private contractors.

In 2016, a similar conflict arose when gas workers protested the company’s proposal to replace pensions with 401(k) plans for new employees. Neil Crowley, a gas worker on the bargaining committee, said reaching a compromise has been tough.

“They really want to gut any benefits to the new hires who are the future of this company,” Crowley said. “They want to take away their pension, change their sick time from what we’ve bargained for decades, and contract out a lot of work. We just want a fair and equitable deal.”

National Grid said it will continue the lockout until there’s an agreement. The company is replacing locked out employees with managers and outside contractors.

“Regardless of work stoppage, we remain dedicated to reaching an agreement that is fair and equitable to all parties,” said Christine Milligan, National Grid’s principal program manager. “Our goal is to provide good jobs for our employees while still meeting our needs to operate in a 21st-century environment.”

Milligan said it is the first time the company has locked out employees. Hunter himself experienced a lockout in 1993, when he worked for Boston Gas, a forerunner of National Grid.

“I’ve been through this before, but you never get used to it,” Hunter said. “I’ve been in the negotiating process and I know how it works. And when the company locks somebody out, it’s quite different than a strike.”


"Locked out, National Grid workers grapple with loss of income, health insurance" by Katie Johnston Globe Staff  July 11, 2018

As the lockout at National Grid stretches into its third week, 1,250 out-of-work gas employees around the state are grappling with the loss of income and health insurance following the utility company’s decision to bar employees from working when contract negotiations stalled.

One employee in Lowell who just found out he has a cancerous tumor in his bladder is unsure how he’s going to pay for surgery; another worker in Northborough is scrambling to get MassHealth to cover a biopsy for her 9-year-old daughter, who suffers from a rare lung disease.

At the same time, the unions representing workers say that safety violations are piling up as contractors and managers fill in for locked-out workers.

“They’re trying to pressure people into accepting the final offer,” said John Buonopane, president of United Steel Workers Local 12012, which represents about a third of the locked-out gas workers. The rest belong to United Steel Workers Local 12003.

National Grid serves more than 1.9 million gas and electric customers in 85 communities in Massachusetts.

After months of contentious bargaining, the contract expired at midnight on June 24, and National Grid refused to let employees in the next day. The unions had voted to authorize a strike the week before but offered to keep working under the old contract, which contains a no-strike clause. Company spokeswoman Christine Milligan said that with no progress being made, the company rejected the proposal and took preemptive action to ensure service was not interrupted.

The union is fighting proposals that would increase health care costs and reduce benefits for new hires, including replacing pensions with 401(k) plans.

National Grid noted that similar changes have been made in many of its other unions in New England and across the country, but the local unions are against the changes.

“Our people really have a lot of responsibility,” Buonopane said. “We respond to gas leaks. Our people enter houses and buildings with explosive levels of gas. For the type of work we do and to maintain that level of experience and knowledge, you really have to offer a decent benefit plan.”

When the company halted the workers’ health insurance July 1 as a result of the lockout, entire families lost their coverage, leaving some of them in precarious positions.

Union members who have been monitoring work sites have reported more than a dozen violations to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. Among them: replacement workers filling valve boxes with sand, which could make emergency shutoff valves inaccessible; tents being erected over excavation sites, which could trap gases and create explosive conditions; and drilling being done directly above a gas main, increasing the risk of puncture.

National Grid said it is holding its current workers out in the field to the same standards it always does.

“Federal law requires that our workforce is trained, tested, and able to demonstrate the skills required to operate and work on the gas system,” Milligan said in an e-mail. “All of our people who are executing gas safety and maintenance work are experienced seasoned professionals who meet these requirements.”

The union has also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the lockout is illegal and is scheduled to provide testimony to the NLRB this week.

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Unlike in industries such as health care — Tufts Medical Center locked out nurses for four days last summer following a one-day strike — lockouts at utilities are rare, said Thomas Juravich, a labor studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and if the labor relations board finds that the company hasn’t been bargaining in good faith, he said, it could be considered a “tainted lockout,” and thus illegal.

“It is an incredibly aggressive move,” he said. “These things oftentimes tend to harden lines rather than soften them.”

The next bargaining session, with a federal mediator, is scheduled for July 17.

In the meantime, Arlene Jette, a customer service representative at the National Grid call center in Northborough, is trying to figure out how to finance a medical procedure for her 9-year-old daughter. Kaylin.....


"National Grid lockout causing headaches for customers" by Katie Johnston Globe Staff  July 25, 2018

A month after National Grid locked out 1,250 workers over a contract dispute, residents in need of gas work are experiencing significant delays.

Some have had difficulty getting meters installed or new accounts opened.

For Jennifer Wilson, a single mother of a 7-year-old girl in Newburyport, it’s been much worse: she’s had no hot water or gas for cooking for nearly a month as she waits for a hookup.

Wilson and her daughter, Sawyer, have been taking cold showers and finally joined a gym in part so they could wash their hair without freezing. With no stove, they have been eating out or buying prepared meals. Wilson also put up a clothes line in the backyard to dry laundry, which has to be washed in cold water.

“I am a single mom,” Wilson wrote to a customer service representative last week, “with no family nearby and I am trying to take care of my young child. I have limited funds . . . This is URGENT.”

With managers and replacement workers handling field work, the company said it is doing “a very limited amount of nonemergency work on a case-by-case basis.” Some cities have temporarily halted less urgent gas projects, citing safety concerns.

Wilson has considered reverting back to oil, which she phased out as part of a recent conversion to gas, but it would cost roughly $1,000 to fill the tank. She could buy propane converters that allow appliances to be powered by propane — a suggestion from National Grid, which told her many customers are looking into this as a temporary solution while they wait for service — but that would cost even more.

Last week, her plumber added two jugs of oil to the tank, which gave her hot water for a few days, and a friend recently loaned her an old electric stove.

Wilson, who works in risk management for an insurance broker in Wilmington, has been trying to find the positive in the situation, teaching her daughter the power of confronting people in a kind and professional way. But her patience has grown thin.....

She “may wind up without a place to live.”