Business

National Grid workers say holding firm on contract demands ‘the right thing’

Locked-out workers picketed outside a National Grid facility in Malden in September. The union and the company announced a tentative agreement late Wednesday.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File
Locked-out workers picketed outside a National Grid facility in Malden in September. The union and the company announced a tentative agreement late Wednesday.

National Grid workers don’t know all the details of the tentative agreement between their union and the utility company, but they’re relieved the six-month lockout may finally be over — and hopeful that their long, stressful standoff hasn’t been in vain.

Since late June, when National Grid refused to let two United Steelworkers locals come back to work following months of contentious contract negotiations, the 1,250 union members have had their lives turned upside down.

Their paychecks stopped coming, and unemployment insurance covered only about half their base salary. The company cut off their health insurance, prompting some to put off doctor visits and one amputee to delay purchasing a prosthetic leg. They exhausted their savings and scaled back on Christmas presents, relied on family members for loans, and turned to the union for help paying bills. Other unions chipped in school supplies and gift cards; one even threw the locked-out workers a Christmas party. Days were spent picketing, attending rallies, and lobbying lawmakers.

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Some workers are nervous about the agreement, details of which the company and union won’t reveal until a ratification vote takes place by Monday. What did they have to give up? What will happen when they return to work?

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But many are convinced the fight was worth it. In addition to balking at paying substantially more for health care, the union has resisted the company’s attempts to take away pensions and other benefits from new hires — a move that would drive a wedge between veterans and younger workers, members say.

This is a company that raked in $4.8 billion in after-tax profit in fiscal 2018, workers point out.

These are concessions that nearly every other National Grid union has made, the UK-based company said.

“I feel like we took a hell of a beating,” said Fred Naumann, an inspector and 29-year veteran. “We had to stand up to the company. We shouldn’t have been going backwards as the company was going forwards. . . . No matter what’s on the table, I think we did the right thing.”

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In a statement, John Buonopane, president of Local 12012, and Joe Kirylo, president of Local 12003, noted that the concessions National Grid was demanding would have hurt their members, future employees, and public safety.

“Though this has been a lengthy and difficult process, we have emerged with a tentative agreement that provides important protections for our members and the Commonwealth’s future natural gas workforce,” they said. “This agreement also includes a number of provisions that will enhance the safety of our communities, including the creation of dozens of new jobs focused on public safety.” They did not elaborate on what those jobs entailed.

National Grid has declined to comment beyond a joint announcement with the union that an agreement has been reached.

Political pressure had been mounting on the company to end the dispute, including a bill that Governor Charlie Baker signed into law this week that would extend unemployment benefits for the locked-out workers. But after all the public scrutiny of the standoff and its fallout, that move probably had little to do with the potential resolution announced late Wednesday night, said Robert Forrant, a labor historian at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Forrant said the two-tiered contract National Grid proposed, which gives new hires fewer benefits than current employees, has become increasingly widespread.

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“They were the thing that really crushed the autoworkers union and the steelworkers union back in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said. “You basically had people on assembly lines doing the same work for completely different paychecks.”

“When you talk about growing inequality, declining standard of living for the middle class . . . well this is the root of it.”

Donna Leccese, wife of 48-year veteran Bill Leccese, 72, said it isn’t clear if her husband will get retiree benefits in the new contract. Her husband, who recently had one of his legs amputated, hasn’t been able to get a prosthetic because of insurance issues, she said.

But other people have had it even worse, she added: “You go to the union hall and look at the faces of these guys — it’s like they let the air out of everybody.”

David Monahan, a customer service tech, said that when he got the news about the tentative deal it was “the best I’ve felt in probably six months.” Monahan, 34, had a cancerous tumor removed from his bladder in July, thanks to union health insurance; 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.

Before Baker signed the unemployment extension bill, Monahan’s unemployment insurance was set to expire in a few weeks.

“My life’s just been barrel-rolled in the last few months,” he said. “I didn’t know which way was up.”

Naumann, the inspector, dedicated himself to harassing replacement workers with a bullhorn and a video camera and estimates he took no more than 15 days off during the nearly 200-day lockout. But it has taken a toll. He was threatened by replacement workers, he said. And it caused problems “between me and the missus.” He didn’t get needed medical exams and dental work, he said, and struggled to make payments on a loan he took out on his 401(k) to pay his daughter’s college tuition.

“As a man you’re supposed to be strong,” said Naumann, 52. This experience “affects everything. It affects your relationships. Monetarily. It affects your health. The nervousness about being able to pay the bills. . . . Trying to be there every day for the union and trying to be there for my family at the same time, it’s extremely stressful.”

Regardless of the deal that’s reached, going back to work will be difficult, said Neil Crowley, a pipefitter who is a member of the negotiating team.

“It’s going to be hard to repair the relationship,” he said. “A lot of people felt loyalty to the company, and that was put to the test.”

Kathleen Mulkerron’s loyalty was tested long before the lockout. The 69-year-old call center employee said that National Grid requires workers to work long shifts during storms, but doesn’t always put them up in hotels. Sometimes there are air mattresses, sometimes there aren’t. “They had us sleeping on the floor, an old lady like me,” she said.

After she lost her National Grid health insurance, Mulkerron struggled to get a Medicare supplement to cover a hip replacement for her husband, who went into cardiac arrest and has been in intensive care for nine weeks. Mulkerron is incredulous that after all she and her co-workers have done for National Grid, the company would treat them so poorly.

“We were there for them,” she said. “They’re not there for us?”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com or on Twitter @ktkjohnston.