By midmorning, there was a line out the door of the conference room at the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association building in Dorchester.
The locked-out gas workers held unpaid bills in their hands. A car payment to Ford. A phone bill from Verizon. Even a gas bill from National Grid, which was funny because the only reason these people were standing in line is because National Grid won’t let them work.
When National Grid locked out 1,250 members of the United Steelworkers in June, everybody hoped it wouldn’t be long. Now, six months later, those workers are staring at a holiday season that is hardly merry. Their unemployment benefits will expire next month.
In the meantime, members of Local 12003 and 12012 are relying on the union to help with bills that keep on coming. Needing a place to help the workers pay their bills, Andy Smith, shop steward for Local 12003, asked Mike Leary, the president of the Boston police officers union, if they could rent a conference room at the cops’ hall on Freeport Street, hard by the Southeast Expressway. Leary said the cops wanted to help and gave them the room for free.
Three days a week, the union’s stewards set up in the conference room, trying to make life a little more bearable for the locked-out workers. They have a system: The workers check in with Diane Sullivan and Pat Healy, who check their names against a master list; Bobby Bulger checks the bill and passes it back to Cherie Greene, then she hands it off to Karen Baker, who files it. At the end of the line, Paul Champagne and Mike Coughlin write out the checks.
When they let him work the gas lines, Champagne is assigned to damage prevention, which is pretty ironic, because that’s what he’s doing now, signing checks.
They’ve paid mortgages, so people don’t get evicted. They’ve paid medical bills, so people don’t die. Workers have had no health insurance since July 1.
“When we started, the check number was 1,000,” Coughlin said, as he signed check No. 11,803.
Local 12003 has almost 900 members, but only about 600 have showed up to get relief for the bills that have to be paid even as they aren’t.
“A lot of our members just say, ‘Let someone who really needs it go first. I’m OK for now,’ ” Champagne says.
The selflessness of the workers stands in dramatic contrast to a British-based company that made almost a $5 billion profit last year but still wants to wring concessions from the people who do the work. Every worker can tell you the company’s four top directors were paid almost $35 million over the last two years and they wonder why they’re the ones who have to give in.
The company tried a classic divide-and-conquer tactic, hoping older workers would sacrifice the pension and health care benefits of new hires to get a contract. It didn’t work.
Standing in line, worker after worker said they would understand if their company was losing money, but it’s not. They watched company bigshots sit there on Beacon Hill and try to blame the workers for being unreasonable.
Marcy Reed, the Massachusetts president of National Grid, noted that the company’s other unions have accepted the concessions, as if the steelworkers should be ashamed for holding the line.
Marcy Reed’s paycheck is considerably more than David Trettel’s. Trettel, 25, is a service technician, less than three years on the job. He stood there in line holding a baby carrier. His daughter Brooklyn stared out with wide eyes and pursed lips.
“Three months old,” Trettel said. “She’s a lock-out baby.”
Trettel’s wife just went back to work as a dental hygienist, and being first-time parents, hard enough in the best of circumstances, is that much harder.
“Having a baby with no health insurance is pretty stressful,” he said.
Being a worker today, in America, where the people up top take care of themselves and let the people down below fight over what’s left, is pretty stressful, too.