Groups Protest National Grid Lockout, Press Communities
Unionized gas workers are looking to local governments and officials for support as the employee lockout of over 1,000 unionized National Grid workers nears the end of its third week.
Members of United Steelworkers Local 12012 plan to ask the Boards of Selectmen in Dracut and Tyngsboro to stop all National Grid work in the town until the contract stalemate resolves, according to union representative and Westford resident Jim Marioles. The union plans to bring the request to the Billerica Board of Selectmen the following week.
The union has been without a contract since June 24. The next bargaining session, involving Locals 12003 and 12012-04 is scheduled for Tuesday.
Marioles said towns should ask whether the work is being done properly in the absence of trained and experienced union workers. He emphasized the potential risks working with gas lines can carry.
“Do or do they not have the same level of service to get out and respond?” he said.
According to a representative from National Grid, federal law requires the company to use trained and capable employees.
Members of those unions rallied in front of Lowell City Hall on Saturday, as well as in Braintree, Dorchester, Malden and Waltham.
With local officials and several 3rd District Congressional candidates supporting them, they reiterated their issues: That National Grid locked workers out rather than allowing them to work during negotiations; that health insurance has been cut off; and that lesser-experienced contractors and managers are doing work, raising the danger for public safety.
National Grid spokesman Robert Kievra, in an email, stated the current workforce consists of 633 skilled contractors and 699 National Grid management employees, including supervisors, experienced and qualified gas workers from New York and Rhode Island, and employees who have been specifically trained for their contingency roles.
“Federal law requires that our workforce is trained, tested and able to demonstrate the skills required to operate and work on the gas system,” Kievra stated. “All our people who are executing gas safety and maintenance work are experienced seasoned professionals who meet these requirements. They meet all federal and state laws and regulations for gas systems workers and have demonstrated the competencies to work on the gas system.”
The unions met with success in Lowell in late June. Councilors agreed to defer action on two gas main projects in the city, citing the employee lockout in their decision.
According to National Grid., the company is completing emergency work, but not long term projects during the stoppage.
In Billerica, Department of Public Works Operations Supervisor Steve Robertson said all National Grid work has stopped since contract negotiations stalled.
Marioles and three Billerica residents who are part of Local 12012 stopped by the town’s selectmen meeting Monday. Before the meeting Town Manager John Curran told workers that speaking before the board would be a violation of Open Meeting Law, because they were not on the agenda of the working session. He suggested they attend the next scheduled meeting.
On Friday, Marioles said the union is asking for a “modest raise,” the same level of benefits, and “decent terms of contract.” The union is also concerned about the company’s sub-contracting of some work, he said.
Marioles said he and others in the union want to get back to work. Personally, he is considering filing for unemployment, which he said would be a first in his 31-year career.
“We have full intentions to urge the company to get us back to work,” he said.
National Grid portrays the sticking point as a change to the benefits package that would apply to new employees hired after June 25 of this year.
The changes include the introduction of deductibles and coinsurance as well as a shift to a retirement plan that requires a 3 to 9 percent employee contribution, according to National Grid. The company says the offered contract also included a close to 15 percent raise for employees over the next five years.
“We remain committed to reaching a fair agreement as soon as possible so these employees may return to work,” Kievra stated.
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins