National Grid lockout of 1,200 workers drags on

With hookups delays, some buildings not opening on time

As the National Grid lockout of 1,200 gas workers nears two months, there is growing pressure on the company by local officials to end the impasse. But there doesn’t seem to be much awareness by the general public of what’s happening, mostly because warm weather means low demand for natural gas.

Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch is the latest to join a growing list of local officials telling National Grid he will not issue permits for work outside of emergencies until the company ends its lockout of workers. His declaration follows Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the Lowell City Council, and other municipalities who have put a stop to the company’s requests for commercial and residential hookups.

But that may not be a bad thing for National Grid, which is using management and replacement workers to try to fill the holes left by shutting out the regular employees. When they receive complaints, they can throw their hands in the air and point the fingers at cities and towns for not letting them do the work.

Locked-out workers have gathered at a number of spots to call attention to their plight, forming information rallies at places such as South Station during the morning commute, outside the State House to urge Gov. Charlie Baker to get involved, and around large work sites that union officials say could become public safety hazards with inexperienced employees hooking up volatile gas lines.

But whether it’s the lazy days of summer, the absence of the union-friendly Legislature, or the declining resources of news outlets, the lockout doesn’t appear to be resonating with the general public. Try as they might, news stories are few and far between with officials from the Steelworkers Union, which represents the locked out workers, pushing op-eds to pressure the company and draw attention to their cause. And that, inevitably, triggers a response from National Grid for balance.

There are growing reports of homeowners and businesses unable to get service beyond emergency shutoffs. One Dracut business owner, in a letter to the editor in the Lowell Sun, said she was told by the utility a $4 million building her company is building in Methuen and ready to move into cannot be hooked up until next spring.

“To have a brand new $4 million building sit idle and be potentially destroyed is unconscionable,” Donna Marks, president of Portland Stone Ware Co., wrote. “National Grid is holding its customers hostage. Once a building has been permitted and construction has started with plans and equipment purchased that will utilize natural gas, we don’t have options.”

The one thing both sides agree on is that there was no agreement when the contract expired on June 25. Union officials say they offered to continue working under the lapsed collective bargaining agreement but company officials refused, hiring replacements and not only barring union employees from work but cutting off their health benefits. The union was initially successful in getting some stories out about employees who had devastating unmet medical needs because of the action but those have faded.

For their part, National Grid officials say they took the lockout action and hired replacements out of fear of a work stoppage, regardless of what the union claimed. They point to a strike authorization vote in the days preceding the end of the contract and a refusal to promise not to walk out.

The divide is over pensions for new workers and health care benefits for all union employees. National Grid wants to move to defined contribution and 401(k) retirement plans with matches by the company while retaining pensions for current workers. The union claims that creates an unequal system of workers doing the same job for different benefits.

The company also wants to institute deductibles and co-pays for the health plans, which many workers around the country have been forced to bear, to maintain profitability. Workers say that’s a bit much for a utility that posted a 24 percent profit last year.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

There is precedent for an extended lockout by National Grid. In 1993, Boston Gas, a predecessor to National Grid, endured a bitter four-month lockout that ran from late January to May. The issues? Pensions and health insurance.

But as summer ebbs, the problems for the company will pick up. And people will start paying attention.

JACK SULLIVAN