As the National Grid lockout approaches the five-month mark — and the holidays and the end of unemployment benefits loom for sidelined workers — there appears to be some movement in the standoff that has put 1,250 union employees out of work.
On Wednesday, the two United Steelworkers locals involved in the dispute presented the utility company with a counterproposal — the first official offer from the workers since the impasse began at the end of June. The move comes after National Grid started talking about bringing back some outsourced work to union employees and updated its proposal last month to beef up pensions by 10 percent for current employees.
The locals’ counterproposal is a comprehensive offer that “we think meets the company’s concerns and the unions’ concerns,” said John Buonopane, president of United Steelworkers Local 12012.He declined to give specifics.
After the negotiating session on Wednesday, National Grid said it was reviewing the counterproposal and talks would resume next Thursday.
“We look forward to continued discussions about their counterproposal,” the company said in a statement. “It is critical that union members have the opportunity to begin seeing the benefits of a new contract.”
With unemployment benefits set to expire in January, and attention mounting from state lawmakers and developers who can’t get gas hookups, pressure is building on both sides to come to an agreement.
Bills that would extend unemployment benefits and provide health care coverage to the locked-out workers, in addition to depriving National Grid of rate increases and public funds, have been gaining momentum on Beacon Hill. State legislators in the House and Senate have sent letters to the Department of Public Utilities voicing concerns about gas safety and urging fines for safety violations — nearly 200 of which the locked-out workers said they have observed. And after a spike in natural gas pressure in Woburn last month, the DPU issued a statewide moratorium on all National Grid work except emergency and compliance issues.
David Monahan, a customer service tech who lost his paycheck and his health insurance when National Grid locked out the workers June 25, is worried about what might happen if he doesn’t go back to work soon. Monahan, 35, had a cancerous tumor removed from his bladder in July, courtesy of health insurance paid by the union, and just got a clean bill of health. But his unemployment will soon run out, and his wife, a per diem occupational therapist in New Hampshire with no sick time or maternity leave, is due to give birth to their second child in February.
They’ve already dipped into their savings and have put off buying a crib and other essentials for the baby. Monahan, who is on the picket line every other day, has been hesitant about looking for jobs, not knowing if the cancer had spread. Working to restore gas service in the Merrimack Valley for Columbia Gas or its contractors isn’t an option, he said, because he doesn’t have the licenses required.
If the workers’ counterproposal doesn’t break the stalemate, he said, he might have to resort to slinging burgers or delivering packages. “It would be like starting over,” he said.
National Grid maintains that its original offer is generous, with a 14.5 percent pay raise over four years and a no-layoff guarantee after five years of service. The major changes the workers are resisting — a base health care plan for all that includes deductibles and coinsurance and replacing pensions with a 401(k)-type plan for new hires — have been agreed to by nearly every other National Grid union, the utility said.
The lockout was necessary to put these 1,250 workers in line with the benefits the rest of their employees have, said Marcy Reed, president of National Grid in Massachusetts.
“I’ve been with the company 30 years, and I can tell you hand on heart I’ve never made a decision as difficult as this one,” Reed said in an interview with The Boston Globe’s editorial staff. “ “As a regulated utility, we pass all of our costs on to our customers. Energy costs in Massachusetts and the region more broadly are higher than most places in America. And it made no sense for us to have 14-plus thousand employees under one plan, at one cost structure, yet these other 1,250 at another.”
The more than $1 million a day the company is spending on the lockout, for police details and overtime and housing costs for replacement workers, will not be passed on to customers, she noted.
The two United Steelworkers locals say they don’t know what other unions got in return when they agreed to more expensive health care and less secure retirement plans, and they are taking a stand for the next generation of workers.
The backlog of work due to the lockout and the moratorium is double what it usually is, Reed estimated, and developers are in crisis mode, especially now that the weather has turned cold. A 132-unit apartment complex in Allston has been ready for gas hookups since July, said Bruce Percelay, chairman of Mount Vernon Co., the real estate firm developing the building. Without heat, woodwork warps, sheetrock molds, paint stays wet, and plaster won’t set properly. Sprinkler systems also can’t be hooked up because the pipes could freeze.
And this goes beyond developers, Percelay noted. Not being able to finish this $50 million project means workers are getting laid off and people who need housing, including 18 affordable units, can’t rent apartments.
“It’s a builder’s nightmare,” he said. “The economic damage that can be done here is very, very real.”