Baker backs more worker benefits if Grid lockout doesn’t end soon
DPU offers to lift moratorium on utility work – with big conditions
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER acknowledged on Wednesday that extending the unemployment benefits of locked-out National Grid workers would be an “unusual precedent,” but he said he was willing to take that step if a bill can be crafted that doesn’t run afoul of state and federal law.
Baker tried to steer a neutral path on the actual labor dispute between National Grid and its locked-out 1,250 steel workers. But he said if no agreement is reached soon he would do whatever he could to make sure the locked-out workers can continue to pay their bills.
“We are frustrated by the inability of both sides to get to yes,” Baker said at a press conference in his office. “But we do not want to see those 1,200 families end up on the wrong side of this thing if it doesn’t end by the holidays. We’ve been back and forth with the Legislature on this quite a bit. The devil is very much in the details. Whatever comes out of this process needs to be something that can be implemented, can work, and can stand within the framework of state and federal law.”
Beacon Hill politicians are eager to intervene in the National Grid labor dispute on the part of the workers, who have gone nearly six months without paychecks or health benefits. There are a host of thorny legal issues involved, including whether legislation can target an individual company and whether any level of government under federal law can intervene in a private labor dispute. For Baker, a Republican, the stakes are high.
National Grid says it is offering to increase the pay of its workers, who currently earn an average of $120,000 a year. It also is offer a no-layoff guarantee for employees with more than five years of service, and a 10 percent increase in pension benefits for current employees. In return, the utility is seeking to put new employees on 401K plans with a 3 to 9 percent company match and asking all employees to pay a greater portion of their health care costs.
The House passed a bill on December 6 that would extend the unemployment benefits of locked-out workers and have the cost of those benefits picked up by all of the state’s major utilities. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the bill would require only the company locking out its workers – in this case National Grid – to pay the costs, but the bill would have shared that cost with other utilities. The speaker has called for fixing that problem, but doing what he asks may raise the constitutional issue of whether legislation can target a specific company. A bill pending in the Senate would also extend unemployment benefits to locked-out workers, but that legislation would leave the tab with all of the state’s employers, although those firms that have more employees receiving unemployment benefits would pay a higher share.
The governor’s comments came as the state Department of Public Utilities said it would lift a two-month-old moratorium on National Grid gas work if the utility agrees to adopt safety provisions contained in legislation pending on Beacon Hill, develop and follow step-by-step instructions on all field projects, and comply with a new requirement that employees working on jobs have set levels of experience.
The third requirement on work experience is the most unusual. It would require employees working on low pressure lines to have five years of experience. For intermediate pressure lines, the required experience level would be 10 years. And for high pressure lines 15 years of experience would be needed.
Industry insiders say federal rules require companies to make sure that employees doing various tasks have met all qualifications and training standards for those jobs. The federal rules do not specify the number of years of experience the operator must have.
A National Grid spokeswoman indicated the company would need more information before agreeing to the conditions. “The company is reviewing the department’s letter and will be working with the administration to fully understand the scope of the new requirements. We will be requesting further clarification from the DPU to ensure we can meet all expectations set forth in its letter,” National Grid said in a statement.
It was unclear whether the new experience level requirement in the DPU order would make it impossible for Grid to do field work with its existing replacement workers.
At a rally in support of locked-out National Grid workers on Wednesday, State House News reported that union leaders were angry that Baker’s administration had offered to lift the moratorium on work by the utility. “He said on more than one occasion during the campaign that he wouldn’t lift the moratorium until we were back to work,” said John Buonopane, president of United Steelworkers Local 12012, referring to Baker. “That was a complete lie. He’s siding with them.”
The DPU barred National Grid from doing anything but emergency and compliance work following an over-pressurization incident in Woburn in October. The incident was resolved without any incident, but against the backdrop of fires and explosions due to an over-pressurization incident in the Merrimack Valley the Department of Public Utilities ordered Grid to halt most field work. The DPU order has delayed many construction projects because they were unable to get gas hookups.
The legislation pending on Beacon Hill would implement a recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board, requiring that companies obtain the stamp of a certified professional engineer on all gas pipeline work.Matthew Beaton, the governor’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, issued a tough-sounding statement that specifically mentioned Grid’s lockout of gas field workers.
“These comprehensive new safety requirements further the Baker-Polito Administration’s efforts to ensure the Commonwealth’s natural gas distribution system is operated in a safe and reliable manner,” Beaton said. “By requiring National Grid to adhere to safety standards above and beyond those recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board, we are protecting our residents and infrastructure while making it clear to utilities that only the highest level of attention and dedication to public safety will be tolerated in Massachusetts. The administration repeatedly facilitated discussions between National Grid and the unions to end the lockout, and continues to urge both sides to come together to reach an agreement, in the best interest of all parties and the citizens of the Commonwealth.”