Just how involved should politicians get in employer-union disputes? We could soon get an answer to that tricky question — at least when it comes to National Grid and its lockout of 1,250 gas workers, now entering its fifth month.
Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest employer group, has decided to take a stand against a bill that would impose new limits on National Grid and require it to provide health coverage for the affected United Steelworkers members as long as the lockout continues. The fact that AIM is sounding the alarm even though it concedes there’s little chance the bill will pass this year shows just how serious a threat the trade group considers the legislation.
Sure, National Grid is an AIM member, one of many. But the group’s leaders say this is not about protecting the British utility. Instead, they say, it’s about preventing an unfortunate precedent, a step down a slippery slope. AIM’s John Regan calls the bill a troubling — and possibly unconstitutional — foray by Beacon Hill into what should be a private-sector dispute. A National Grid spokeswoman expressed similar concerns.
The tail end of a two-year session is normally a quiet time at the State House. No roll calls are held, and controversial bills usually remain frozen in place.
But the phones are ringing, with calls from constituents who can’t get their gas hookups. Many developments are sidelined as builders wait for crucial connections. Representative Tom Golden, the House’s point person on energy issues, says he wants to hold a hearing on the National Grid bill before Thanksgiving.
Golden knows it’s tough to move controversial bills at this time of year. But he says he hopes to move this one because it could help end the lockout and its economic damage. The number of new connections in the lockout’s first three months was half of what it was at the same time a year ago. Workers received more than $13 million in unemployment payments, meanwhile, and the state lost up to $1.8 million in income taxes. (Complicating matters: State regulators imposed a moratorium last month on nonemergency gas hookups in National Grid’s system, to conduct a safety review.)
The action isn’t just happening at the State House. The Quincy City Council tried to use a subpoena — unsuccessfully, at least so far — to drag National Grid Massachusetts president Marcy Reed into a council hearing on Thursday night. National Grid balked; its lawyer said the council overstepped its authority and improperly tried to interfere with a labor dispute. Councilor Brian Palmucci says this wasn’t a pro-union move. Instead, he says he wants Reed to appear because of concerns about the lockout’s impact on public safety, roads, and economic growth.
In Boston, city councilors also threw the word “subpoena” around after expressing anger that National Grid didn’t send a representative to their hearing earlier this week. They say their focus was on safety, in the wake of the recent fires and explosions in the Lawrence area. That September incident occurred on a Columbia Gas system. But the councilors want assurances that something similar doesn’t play out in Boston.
Of course, much of this agitation and drama could become moot if a truce can be reached between National Grid and the union. Both sides meet again on Election Day, and hope to find common ground before there’s more collateral damage.