Union representatives for about 1,250 National Grid gas employees locked out of their jobs in a contract dispute since June met with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities Wednesday to discuss what they say are more than 100 alleged safety violations committed by inexperienced replacement workers.
The meeting came on the same day that National Grid — in a full-page advertisement in the Boston Globe — said the company is “pleased to see advancement in discussions” around some issues and offered reassurance that it continues to provide “safe, reliable service to our communities.” The utility also outlined its latest contract offer and noted that it has met with union representatives 14 times since the lockout started.
But John Buonopane, president of United Steel Workers Local 12012, said the company has made only incremental changes to its original offer.
“They haven’t addressed the main proposals,” Buonopane said. “They made some steps in regards to some of the safety-related proposals, and some work-rule-type issues, but again, many of them they didn’t address at all.”
The lockout began after the union rejected a contract offer that would have increased employees’ health care costs and converted the existing traditional pension plan to a 401(k)-style retirement package for new workers.
National Grid spokeswoman Christine Milligan said the company has “bargained with these two unions over many years” and has been willing to compromise in an effort to end the stalemate.
In 2016, she said, National Grid “in large part withdrew its health insurance proposals and completely dropped its new-hire pension proposal” in an unsuccessful effort to reach agreement on a two-year pact. In the current negotiations, Milligan said, the unions have not changed “their position from 2016 regarding retirement plans for new hires.”
Since the lockout began, workers have kept a watchful eye over their replacements and continue to file safety-related complaints with the DPU.
Buonopane said Wednesday’s session was the second held between the DPU and union representatives from locals 12003 and 12012.
Following the first meeting, the DPU granted 29 of the 100 complaints an exit letter, which is the first step toward investigating potential violations of federal pipeline safety regulations. The DPU on Wednesday did not provide new information about additional complaints made since the first meeting but told union members that several investigations concerning National Grid’s operations during the lockout are ongoing.
Earlier this month, National Grid sent the DPU a report that found the company spent 2 percent more between July and September compared with previous years, but it found workers repaired fewer gas leaks and hooked up 50 percent fewer new gas customers during that time compared with the same period in 2017.
Milligan said that during the lockout the utility has been “focusing on emergency and state-mandated compliance work.” She said it has been in compliance with regard to repairing gas leaks.
“It’s imperative,’’ said Buonopane, “that the DPU follow the governor’s directive and continue the moratorium about how National Grid is operating right now, until the permanent employees, the experienced employees, are back to work.”
The alleged safety violations range from replacement workers drilling over marked gas lines that could puncture pipes to taking risks that could potentially cause disasters. One complaint filed last week details replacement workers lighting a barbecue and smoking cigarettes at the Commercial Point liquefied natural gas plant in Dorchester, said Joe Kirylo, president of Local 12003.
“The Department is in the process of hiring an independent evaluator to assess, out of an abundance of caution, the safety and accountability of pipeline infrastructure throughout Massachusetts,” said Peter Lorenz, director of communications and public affairs for the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, in a statement on behalf of DPU.
Milligan said that the utility met with the unions on Oct. 19, and is due to meet with them again on Monday. “We will come to the table . . . with a continued focus on reaching agreements with both unions,” she said.
On Wednesday, members of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts came to South Station — where the DPU meeting was held — to demonstrate their solidarity with the locked-out gas workers. President Rich MacKinnon said his firefighters understand they signed up for a dangerous job, but that doesn’t justify forcing them to take unnecessary risks.
“I have some serious concerns about my members’ safety as they respond to some of these violations and leaks, not only for members of the fire department but also the residents that we’re sworn to protect,” he said.