Business & Tech

State leaders increase focus on National Grid labor standoff

A National Grid truck on South Broadway in Lawrence on Friday.
Mary Schwalm/Associated Press
A National Grid truck on South Broadway in Lawrence on Friday.

The state’s top union leader is calling for National Grid Massachusetts president Marcy Reed to resign from the board of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts in light of the fact that she cut off her employees from Blue Cross health insurance when the company locked out union gas workers nearly three months ago.

The action is one of several by high-powered officials who stepped up their involvement in the National Grid labor standoff this week. On Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker met with union leaders for the first time, and Attorney General Maura Healey’s office asked the Department of Public Utilities, which regulates gas work, to conduct a public investigation of safety issues during the lockout.

The actions of Baker and Healey came before Thursday’s gas explosions rocked three Merrimack Valley communities. An overpressurization of a gas main owned by Columbia Gas is the focus of the investigation.

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The lockout of 1,250 members of two United Steelworkers unions by National Grid began the day after their contract expired in late June, as negotiations stalled. The unions offered to continue working without a contract, but National Grid shut them out instead, abruptly halting their health insurance on July 1.

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In a letter sent to Andrew Dreyfus, head of the state’s largest insurer on Wednesday, Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman wrote that Reed’s actions were unethical and immoral, resulting in 3,000 workers and family members going without insurance. The move was also a conflict of interest, he said, considering her role on the board.

“She is cutting off health insurance for BCBS members, while also depriving BCBS of more than 3,000 members and their premium payments,” Tolman wrote. “An executive who is willing to use the health of her employees as leverage in a contract dispute is not fit to serve on the board of an organization that works tirelessly to expand access to health care. We have very serious concerns about her judgment and believe BCBS should demand her resignation.”

Massachusetts AFL-CIO executive vice president Francis Callahan Jr. is also on the Blue Cross Blue Shield board.

Blue Cross responded to the letter with a statement, saying that the insurer has done everything to “ensure the continuity of care for the workers affected by this dispute” and that it relies on a diversity of perspectives on its board from both management and labor.

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“Marcy Reed has served on our board since 2016 and brings the important voice of employers to our board discussions,” the company said.

John Buonopane, president of United Steelworkers Local 12012, one of the locked-out unions, noted that several union members are dealing with serious medical conditions, including cancer, forcing some to resort to online fund-raising to pay for treatment.

“It’s completely inappropriate for an organization like Blue Cross Blue Shield, whose mission is to insure families, to have a board member who has ripped away health care from her employees,” he said in a statement.

The attorney general’s office weighed in with a call for a public safety investigation, noting in a letter to the DPU that her office had expressed concerns over National Grid’s “troubling safety record” long before the lockout began. Since the lockout, the unions have submitted nearly 100 complaints of safety violations to the DPU, including workers drilling over gas mains and failing to detect serious gas leaks.

“The public has little to no information regarding whether action by National Grid was necessary to address the alleged infractions, whether National Grid has remedied the violations, the process that the Department is using to investigate the complaints, or whether the Department has taken any actions related to the complaints, including the exercise of its enforcement or penalty authority,” the letter stated.

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National Grid said in a statement: “Over the past 12 weeks, we’ve successfully completed more than 18,000 jobs without incident. . . . Safety is our top priority, regardless of the composition of the workforce that is serving our customers. The DPU has questioned us on alleged safety violations reported by union employees, and we will continue to work with the agency to address any safety concerns they may have.”

Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey increased their attention on the labor standoff this week before Thursday’s gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley.

Baker’s office declined to comment on the meeting with the Steelworkers’ unions.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com.