Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation Monday that would extend unemployment insurance benefits for about 1,250 union workers at National Grid who have been locked out of their jobs since late June amid a contract dispute.
The workers’ unemployment benefits had been scheduled to expire in mid-January. This legislation would extend those payments for up to another 26 weeks, or until the lockout ends.
Union workers had planned a 10 a.m. rally at the State House on Monday to urge Baker to sign the bill, but decided to use the event to thank lawmakers and the governor instead after he signed the legislation earlier in the morning.
“You feel like somebody has your back,” said John Buonopane, president of the United Steelworkers Local 12012. “We’re over six months now, and the unemployment insurance is running out for many people. If National Grid continues this lockout and this hard bargaining that they’ve been pursuing, these people know they have something.”
Buonopane said some members have found other jobs since the lockout began, but he still expects hundreds will take advantage of the unemployment benefits extension if a new contract agreement isn’t reached in time.
“It’s not nearly what people were making before they were locked out, but it’s something,” Buonopane said. “It definitely provides that economic backstop you need to prevent you from complete ruin.”
National Grid spokeswoman Christine Milligan said that while it’s unfortunate that state officials have decided to “become involved in a private labor dispute,” the bill doesn’t change the company’s goal to reach a fair agreement that balances the needs of its customers and employees. She also said the company is reviewing the bill to determine if it conflicts with federal law.
Baker’s office issued a brief statement, saying this new law, coupled with a different bill that he signed on Monday afternoon to require more oversight of natural gas projects, “significantly increases accountability for all utility companies, and will help ensure that utilities use experienced crews.”
The other bill requires that plans for natural gas work that could pose a public safety risk be certified by a professional engineer. The Baker administration filed that bill based on a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board, after the federal agency investigated the fires and explosions that took place on Sept. 13 in Columbia Gas’s Merrimack Valley system.
The unemployment benefits legislation doesn’t mention National Grid by name, although it was crafted in recent weeks with the locked-out workers in mind. It could theoretically help other utility workers who are involuntarily unemployed because of a future lockout. That bill drew opposition from Associated Industries of Massachusetts, in part because any additional payments would come from the state’s employer-funded pool that is used to cover the costs of unemployment insurance benefits.
AIM sent a letter to Baker last week, asking him to veto the bill out of concern that employers not involved in the labor dispute would be forced to pay for some portion of the additional costs. AIM also argued that in general, any bill that targets specific labor disputes sets a bad precedent, and could potentially hamper contract negotiations. For two National Grid unions, the steelworkers’ locals 12003 and 12012, this unemployment insurance bill represented an important victory. The bigger challenge, however, still awaits: Negotiators go back to the table on Wednesday in an effort to reach a new contract.
“On Friday, after days of lengthy, productive bargaining sessions, the company presented the unions with a revised offer, which we expect the unions to formally respond to on Wednesday, which was the unions’ earliest availability to meet,” Milligan said.
The lockout has had a major economic impact in many of the 85 cities and towns affected because gas hookups have been significantly delayed for new projects. Those delays were exacerbated during a moratorium that the Baker administration imposed on all nonemergency and noncompliance gas work in National Grid’s territory, after an overpressurization incident in Woburn on Oct. 8. The state Department of Public Utilities lifted the moratorium two weeks ago, while imposing new restrictions on the utility.Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.