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.”Jon Chesto contributed to this story. Alex Gailey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @awhyteeg.