BILLERICA -- Selectmen voted to join surrounding communities and place a moratorium on all National Grid gas work except in “emergency or necessary processes” Monday, as the lockout of unionized gas workers passes the two-month mark.
“My interest is not in enshrining a moratorium that has enough back doors that there is no pain,” said Selectman Andrew Deslaurier. “The reason there needs to be additional oversight is because we lack trust in the work being completed, because the people we do trust aren’t being allowed to do the work.”
The exact effect of the motion, which was approved 5-0, is unclear as the moratorium was passed without language defining emergency or necessary work.
Town Manager John Curran said he plans to draft guidelines and be as consistent as possible when considering permits Monday night. He did not respond for comment Wednesday. Several other communities have passed the moratorium before fully drafting the language, Westford resident and United Steelworkers Local 12012 union representative Jim Marioles said.
Deslaurier, who submitted the motion for the agenda several weeks ago, said he is concerned about both public safety and the treatment of unionized workers by National Grid.
The company has pulled employee’s health insurance and workers have been without a contract since it expired on June 24.
“It’s reprehensible that they’ve locked you out,” said Selectman Ed Giroux. Selectman Kim Conway echoed his comments.
Some gas work by the company continues, but union supporters at the meeting expressed concern regarding non-union workers qualifications and called National Grid’s defense of these employees “a fairytale.”
George Noel -- a business manager at Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 6 -- said he saw a worker who appeared inexperienced on a work site in town and jobs that should be taking two to three hours are taking six.
“I’m not only here as a brother standing with them. I’m here as a concerned citizen and I urge you, I beg you, to have a moratorium against any future gas work in this town until these workers are back,” he said.
Selectman Michael Rosa said he saw a National Grid employee in his neighborhood with a map and out-of-state plates who was looking for the gas lines.
“I said I could make it real easy for you,” Rosa said. “There is no gas line in this street. There is no gas line in this neighborhood.”
Chris Tribou, a candidate for state representative, also spoke in favor of the union workers, saying the long conflict has burdened both taxpayers and the families of workers.
Rosa and Selectman George Simolaris both said they both support the union workers and public safety, but expressed concern regarding the effect a moratorium would have on town residents and town and state projects.
“I support you. I support safety. But I don’t know what we’re being asked to do here,” Rosa said during the meeting, addressing union representative Marioles.
Simolaris said he received a call from a family mid-way through a home renovation, who were unable to connect to gas to operate their stove or water heater. He asked whether connecting these residents to gas would be allowed under the moratorium.
At the meeting, Curran did not have a list of projects a moratorium on gas work in the city would affect, but said the $176 million high school project will soon need to connect to gas lines.
Deslaurier agreed to an amendment allowing emergency or necessary processes at the town manager’s discretion.
“I think there’s been enough delays and on behalf of all the non-multi-million families I would like to make a moratorium. ... I encourage you (Curran) in non-emergency processes to take your time,” he said.
A statement from National Grid said the company is “confident” in the work done by their continuation workforce over the past ten weeks.
“While we realize there is currently heightened public awareness around our safety policies right now, we do, in fact, address safety issues on any given day, all year round, across our jurisdictions with both union and non-union employees,” the statement read. “We hold our workforce that is out in the fields right now to the same standards that we hold our union employees on any normal day.”
National Grid said, through a federal mediator, the company has offered eight days for meetings and the next available date the unions have provided is Sept. 4.
“The differences between National Grid and these unions will be resolved at the bargaining table, not on a City Council floor,” according to the statement. “National Grid is committed to negotiating for a fair agreement with the Steelworkers that balances the needs of our employees and our customers.”
In July, Lowell City Council voted to no longer approve permits for gas-line projects as long as the lockout continues.
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