Beacon Hill’s frustration with the interminable lockout at National Grid is understandable: Neither the utility company nor its unions seem to be in any hurry to make a deal, and the economic costs are growing.
Still, the measures put forward by both the House and Senate, extending benefits for workers, miss the mark, and threaten to make the lockout — which has been going on since June — longer, while sticking innocent third parties with the cost. This might sound harsh, but both management and union need to be fully exposed to the financial consequences of their inability to come to an agreement. That’s the way private-sector labor negotiations are supposed to work.
Both House and Senate are looking for ways to extend benefits for locked-out workers. The problem is that the National Grid workers aren’t the only people in Massachusetts going without a paycheck — but they’re the only ones who would benefit from a relief bill.
The Senate bill — passed Thursday — taps the state’s unemployment insurance program, which is funded by all employers, in order to extend eligibility for benefits for just the roughly 1,250 locked-out National Grid workers.
The bill is objectionable for another reason: It probably won’t lead to a solution to the lockout, which ought to be Beacon Hill’s goal. Since it won’t be National Grid shelling out for the benefits (except for what the utility company pays into unemployment insurance), the legislation puts no real financial pressure on the company. And it lessens pressure on the union, too.
Before the Senate bill, the House approved an equally problematic bill that would have passed the cost of extended benefits on to all utilities. The details of the House bill were different, but the underlying problem was the same: It spreads the cost to people who have nothing to do with the lockout, without providing them access to the benefits.
The reality is that it’s difficult for the Legislature to penalize National Grid, because the company’s actions have been legal. Lockouts and strikes are hardball tactics, but they’re allowed at utility companies.
The public has interests on both sides of the dispute. Obviously, it’s not good for taxpayers to be picking up the costs of government assistance to locked-out workers. But labor costs are ultimately paid by ratepayers: Pressuring the company into an overly generous deal would lead to higher utility bills.
The message the Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker should be sending — to both parties in the dispute — is that they need to work out their differences around the negotiating table, and neither should count on intervention from the state to protect them from the fallout of an impasse.
Beacon Hill’s biggest pressure point is to remind National Grid that utilities are a heavily regulated industry, and that lawmakers won’t forget the time a prolonged labor dispute hurt both workers and customers.
As Baker himself put it recently, National Grid “has a franchise” that was granted by the Commonwealth. And under that franchise, “they have certain obligations and responsibilities to service their customers, our constituents.”
By locking out workers, National Grid isn’t exactly keeping up its end of the bargain.