Lawmakers push harder to resolve labor dispute at National Grid
Massachusetts political leaders kicked off a new round of rhetorical pressure on National Grid over its monthslong lockout of unionized gas workers amid signs that the negotiations have gotten fresh momentum.
So far, neither the Senate nor Governor Charlie Baker are throwing their support behind House-passed legislation that would force National Grid to cover the tab for extending unemployment benefits for those 1,250 workers.
Asked whether he’d sign the House bill, Baker said he doesn’t comment on hypothetical situations.
“I think everybody here is enormously frustrated about the fact that this lockout has dragged on for months and it’s had a profoundly negative impact on National Grid’s ability to do its job on behalf of the customers that it serves,” Baker told reporters Monday.
He also said his office has been consulting with House and Senate leaders on technical and legal aspects of legislative responses to the labor dispute.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka and the Senate minority leader, Bruce Tarr, issued a statement Sunday night calling for National Grid to end the lock out immediately.
They said that “the Senate is prepared to take action if needed,” but did not specify what that might be.
“I’m trying to encourage resolution of this conflict,” Spilka told The Boston Globe Monday.
“We need to end it for the workers, for the company, for public safety, for the whole Commonwealth. It’s time to resolve this conflict.”
As for legislation, she remained noncommittal about supporting the House bill, though she said they are looking at it:
“There’s several possibilities . . . It’s a very complex situation, legal and practical.”
On Thursday, the House approved a bill — clearly aimed at pressuring National Grid — that 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, and workers would receive the same weekly benefits they otherwise would get under unemployment law.
Meanwhile, National Grid and union representatives say they plan to step up the frequency of their talks as they push to resolve the labor dispute by Christmas. The two sides are meeting on Thursday and Friday and then plan to meet every day starting Dec. 17.
“After five and a half months, National Grid today agreed to discuss key issues related to economics, benefits and safety,” said John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, the presidents of United Steel Workers Local 12012 and 12003, in a statement.
“We want to thank legislators who are working so hard to help our members and their families during this very difficult holiday season.”
“We are focused on ending the lockout by reaching an agreement with the unions at the bargaining table,” according to Christine Milligan, a spokeswoman for National Grid.
“We’re encouraged that after we provided a list Friday to the unions of items we are willing to discuss — beyond our current positions — the unions offered us both Thursday and Friday to negotiate, and we also received a commitment to meet beginning Monday, Dec. 17th, every day until we reach an agreement.”
On Tuesday, lawmakers have scheduled an unrelated hearing on natural gas safety, and Spilka said they will use that hearing to vet the bill Baker filed in November that would require all natural gas work that could pose a material risk to the public to be reviewed and approved by a certified engineer.
Spilka and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said Monday that before the end of the year they want to pass legislation to improve the safety of gas infrastructure work.
The legislation was based on a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board that was included in its report on the cause of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions, which knocked out service to thousands of utility customers and killed one person.