Metro

House pushes National Grid to cover locked-out workers’ benefits

Replacement crews worked on a natural gas line on Wyman Street in Woburn.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff/file
Replacement crews worked on a natural gas line on Wyman Street in Woburn.

Beacon Hill turned up the heat Tuesday on National Grid over its prolonged standoff with 1,250 union employees, pushing legislation that would effectively require the utility to cover the cost of extended unemployment benefits for locked-out workers.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo raised the threat Tuesday, saying the House would take up the bill in an informal session — the same day lawmakers held a lengthy, emotional hearing on a separate bill that would impose other restrictions on the company.

But Republicans used a procedural move to block the chamber from acting on the bill amid concerns that it could set a precedent for legislative meddling in labor disputes. During informal session the objection of any single member can block legislation.

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Republican resistance leaves the bill’s immediate future uncertain, as the House does not return to formal session until early next year. But DeLeo’s move successfully trained further public attention and pressure on the utility and helped amplify the union’s criticisms.

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Locked out since June, the United Steel Workers Locals 12012 and 12003 have said many of their members will use up their unemployment benefits as early as Jan. 14.

In a statement, DeLeo accused National Grid of using the lockout as a negotiating tactic amid what he called a “wholly avoidable business decision by a public utility.”

“Such reckless behavior by any large employer would be appalling, but it is even more egregious when undertaken by a public utility that has been granted a territorial monopoly by the Commonwealth,” DeLeo said. “When we grant a public utility, we expect that companies bear implicit responsibilities because of the special status conferred upon them.”

The new legislation would create a separate fund for “involuntarily” locked-out workers to tap once they exhaust their regular unemployment benefits. The employer would cover both the costs of implementing the program as well as the benefits themselves, according to a copy of the legislation, and workers would receive the same weekly benefits they otherwise would get from unemployment law.

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Any benefits from the program would end once the lockout is resolved, and they would not continue if workers decided to strike.

The bill does not specifically mention National Grid, but in a thinly veiled reference, it seeks to bar a company from passing the costs of the program to “ratepayers of an employer.”

National Grid assailed the proposal Tuesday, and sought to cast blame on the unions for the enduring labor strife.

“The proposed bill is punitive, targeting National Grid for exercising its rights under federal labor law,” the company said in a statement. “If the unions were a willing partner at the bargaining table, we could reach an agreement before Christmas. The best way to ensure these employees get benefits is for them to reach agreement with the company for a fair and generous contract, which is what we continue to offer.”

National Grid has said that its first offer included a 14.5 percent pay raise over four years and a no-layoff guarantee after five years of service. The union, meanwhile, has resisted changes such as the addition of a base health care plan with deductibles and coinsurance, and replacing traditional pensions with a 401(k)-type plan for new hires.

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National Grid said the two sides are scheduled to meet in another negotiating session on Friday. They met on Monday, after which the unions accused the company of a “continued refusal to compromise,” while National Grid said the labor officials refused to budge from keeping the “current costly health insurance and retirement plan provision.”

Tuesday on Beacon Hill, public officials and union members excoriated National Grid during a hearing on a separate but similar bill — in this case, seeking to pressure the utility by forcing it to continue to provide locked-out workers with health insurance as well as blocking any rate increases or using public funds for maintenance work until the labor dispute is resolved.

“I’m just so disgusted. This was not bargaining in good faith by the company. This was economic and medical terrorism, and it was done completely intentionally,” said Chris Brennan, a 30-year National Grid employee and United Steelworker union member, after telling lawmakers how he scrambled to secure coverage for his wife’s cervical cancer treatments and emergency heart surgery. “I used to be proud to work for this company; now I’m disgusted and ashamed for them and about them.”

Union gas workers, many wearing black sweat shirts emblazoned with the numbers of the two United Steelworkers locals affected by the lockout, crowded into the large hearing room for more than three hours. Local and state officials detailed the growing costs to taxpayers and the economy as locked-out workers turn to food stamps and other public benefits, and critical utility work gets left undone.

“We are not asking the Legislature to declare a winner or loser in this dispute,” said Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman. “We are asking you to make a simple statement — that it’s not okay to use the threat of financial ruin as a bargaining chip in order to gain concessions.”

Governor Charlie Baker did not take a stance on the new legislation on unemployment benefits Tuesday, but a spokesman said he’s repeatedly called for National Grid and the unions to reach a compromise.

“The Baker-Polito administration has facilitated discussions between National Grid and union leadership to encourage negotiations,” said spokesman Brendan Moss. He added that the administration has also imposed a moratorium on all National Grid work, except for emergency and compliance situations, pending a state review of the company’s “safety practices.”

Senate President Karen E. Spilka was noncommittal about the measure. “The Senate is very concerned about the negative impacts of the ongoing National Grid lockout for families, businesses and the safety of our communities,” she said in a statement. “We continue to monitor this situation and evaluate all available options.”

Other business interests in the state said they were uncomfortable with the Legislature’s efforts to intervene in the lockout. Associated Industries of Massachusetts — stressing it is not taking sides in the labor dispute — said it opposed the unemployment legislation because it “would both slow negotiations and set an unwise precedent” of the Legislature meddling in such matters.

“Additionally, AIM is concerned about the potential for this legislation to expand the scope and change the intent of the unemployment insurance system, which was never intended to be used as a tool to resolve labor disputes,” said the state’s largest business lobby.

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout