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National Grid risks public safety in bid to punish workers

JOHN BUONOPANE and JOE KIRYLO report on how locked-out energy workers in Massachusetts have been replaced with temporary labour and had their healthcare insurance cancelled

JUST months after receiving an unprecedented tax cut from the Trump administration, National Grid has locked out 1,250 of its US employees without pay or health insurance and endangered dozens of cities and towns in the state of Massachusetts. 

National Grid has repeatedly admitted that the lockout is a negotiating tactic aimed at achieving one goal — force union members to sign a contract that slashes benefits for young workers that would push them out of the middle class and that allows inexperienced, and cheap, contract workers to handle gas projects. 

Not only has National Grid profited extensively from the Trump tax cut, the company is embracing Trumpian business philosophies in an effort to punish workers. 

In his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, President Donald Trump wrote about negotiating, saying: “The best thing you can do is deal from strength and leverage is the biggest strength you can have.”

In this case, the leverage is clear — the healthcare of the workers’ families and the pay cheques of locked-out workers. Prominent US elected officials are blasting National Grid for its tactics. Both senators from Massachusetts have weighed in, as have multiple representatives. 

On Twitter, Senator Ed Markey said the lockout is “a worker knock-out and should never be used as a negotiating tactic.” 

Representative Joe Kennedy on Twitter urged National Grid to return to the bargaining table and said that “workers standing up for fair wages and decent pensions shouldn’t have their family’s health care jeopardised.” 

Mayors of Massachusetts cities have told National Grid they are not happy with the safety consequences of sloppy, poorly work performed by replacement contractors during the lockout. 

More than 50 potential safety violations have been filed with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities over the past month. 
In one city, a third-party contractor was observed excavating within 200 feet of a National Grid high-pressure regulator pit and without a National Grid inspector onsite. 

In another community, National Grid replacement workers filled emergency valves — which should be kept clear in case of an emergency — with sand in violation of the company’s own operations and maintenance manual.  

Mayors of cities like Boston and Everett have told National Grid they want experienced gas workers back on the job. And these and other communities are halting non-emergency gas work until the company ends the lockout.

Across the US, National Grid has made a push to replace experienced workers with lesser-trained contractors and it is having devastating consequences. 

In New York, National Grid had to pay $1.98 million to settle a case after a gas explosion seriously injured two people, and in Rhode Island the company was fined more than $100,000 for violations related to a major gas leak that shut down a portion of the capital city for hours. 

Just as concerning is the toll on employees. National Grid terminated health insurance coverage for workers and their families over a month ago. 

Employees have kids and spouses who are battling cancer and other serious medical conditions. They’re left scrambling to find and pay for coverage. 

One employee’s toddler son was diagnosed with stage three cancer shortly before National Grid locked out workers. Another worker was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Other employees have resorted to online fundraising campaigns to cover the cost of their children’s healthcare.

Most unfortunate is that all of this could have been prevented because National Grid did not have to lock out employees.

Our unions’ previous contract with National Grid expired in February 2016. Our members didn’t ratify a new contract until five months later in July 2016. During this time there was no lockout. Workers continued to do their jobs, ensuring that competent, safe and reliable gas service was delivered to communities across Massachusetts.

So what has changed? Nothing, except National Grid’s position. Instead of agreeing to a contract extension while negotiations continue, the company chose to lock out 1,200 of its most experienced employees. 

National Grid is extremely profitable. In May, the company bragged about profits soaring 24 per cent. Its FY2018 pretax profit was $3.66 billion, up from $2.18bn the year prior. 

National Grid jacks up consumer bills by 5 to 7 per cent each year, and is currently seeking tens of millions of dollars from Massachusetts consumers during its upcoming rate case.

Instead of being honest about the lockout, National Grid continues to mislead consumers, repeatedly referring to the lockout as a strike in an attempt to cast blame on the very employees who are forced to sit on the sidelines with no pay and no health insurance. 

The company has also tried to blame its ridiculously escalating customer billing charges on these locked-out workers, who make up just one-tenth of National Grid’s union workforce. 

The real blame lies in National Grid’s mismanagement — the high number of vendors, the endless supply of consultants and the bloated executive salaries and benefits. 

National Grid has the resources to negotiate a fair contract that prioritises public safety and that protects quality, middle-class jobs for its employees who work in dangerous and hazardous conditions. 

But it chooses not to. It’s all well and good that National Grid is profiting from Trump. We just wish they would stop acting like him. 

John Buonopane is president of United Steelworkers Local 12012. Joe Kirylo is president of United Steelworkers Local 12003.

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