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Workers at Cambridge power plant threaten strike

Some workers at Kendall Square power plant said their concerns center on safety and staffing issues.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Some workers at Kendall Square power plant said their concerns center on safety and staffing issues.

Utility workers at the 64-year-old Kendall Square power plant are threatening to strike unless the owner meets their demands about staffing and safety.

Earlier this week, 27 plant workers represented by Utility Workers Union of America Local 369 overwhelmingly authorized its leaders to call a strike if they fail to make progress on issues with NRG Energy, of Princeton, N.J., and Houston. The contract is set to expire at midnight Thursday.

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“We’re not going very fast,” said Craig Connolly, business agent for District 2 of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 369, taking a break from talks at the Hyatt Place hotel in Braintree Friday. “Unfortunately, it seems like we’re spinning our wheels at the moment.”

Union officials said they are concerned that NRG, the country’s largest power generation company, intends to cut jobs and add more responsibilities to remaining positions, further straining a workforce stretched thin by previous cuts.

Since 2009, plant operators have dropped the average number of workers per shift from four to three, according to the union. Already, low staffing levels have required some employees to work as many as 90 consecutive days, the union said.

If fewer people are required to take on yet more work, it may become more difficult for the aging plant to operate safely and comply with environmental regulations, said Dan Hurley, president of Local 369.

“You have an old, old power plant that is being run by less and less people,” Hurley said. “It’s all about the bottom line with NRG, and the bottom line is that the less people are there the more money they make.”

NRG, however, argues that adding new duties to plant job descriptions will benefit workers, expanding their skills and preserving their jobs, company spokesman David Gaier said. And, despite union concerns, the company’s staffing plans will continue to ensure safe operations, he said.

Gaier noted that past cuts at the Kendall plant were not implemented by NRG, which acquired the generating station along the Charles River in December as part of a merger with GenOn Energy.

“The changes reflect the economic situation of the plant and best practices of the power generation industry,” he said. “Safety is now and always will be at the top of our priorities.”

The entire power generation industry is facing pressure to cut costs, said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, a Boston trade group. In recent years, falling wholesale electricity prices have intensified those pressures, he said.

“In any competitive marketplace, when you’re got companies that literally have to go out and fight for market share every single day . . . sometimes that means doing more with less,” Dolan said.

In November, NRG reported a third quarter net loss of $1 million. Since the GenOn merger, the company’s stock price has risen to just over $24 from $23.

The plant, which generally burns natural gas, has a generating capacity of 256 megawatts, enough to power nearly 300,000 homes. NRG has a plan to operate safely and reliably if union workers strike, Gaier said.

Union officials, however, said they fear replacement workers would not be adequately trained.

Both sides expressed a desire to avoid a strike and reach an agreement before the contract expires. Health insurance costs are another sticking point, union officials said, but plant safety remains a top priority.

“Our concerns are very real,” Connolly said. “We have to go into that plant every day.”

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at seshemkus@gmail.com.
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