House goes with Senate approach on Grid legislation

Utility, union locals say they are moving toward an agreement by Dec. 28

HOUSE LEADERSHIP spent all day thinking about it, but in the end decided to go with the Senate’s approach to extending unemployment benefits to locked-out steelworkers – most immediately to the 1,250 workers locked out by National Grid.

The House opened its session at 11 a.m. and recessed at 11:30 until a little after 4 p.m. With only a couple lawmakers in the chamber, the House in a matter of minutes concurred with the Senate language. House officials said the two branches will put some finishing procedural touches on the legislation on Monday and then send it to Gov. Charlie Baker, who is expected to sign it.

Steelworkers hung around outside the House chamber most of the day on Friday, waiting for the body to act. Now the big question is what impact the extended unemployment benefits will have on the negotiations between National Grid and its two steelworker locals. The extended benefits most likely give the unions some breathing room to strike a deal, but whether either side will bend is difficult to say. Their positions have become entrenched, although Grid said it was making a new offer to the unions on Friday.

In a statement issued jointly National Grid and the steelworker locals on Friday, the utility said it refrained from making a new contract offer to focus on reaching an overall agreement. “The company and the unions have agreed to a firm schedule to meet and bargain with the shared intent to reach an agreement by December 28,” the joint statement said.

John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, the presidents of the two steelworker locals, said they were pleased to see the legislation move forward. “This legislation offers a vital economic lifeline and equal bargaining platform while National Grid continues to use the threat of economic ruin and loss of health insurance as a bargaining chip. It would be especially meaningful for final legislation to be enacted and signed on Monday before the holiday,” they said in a statement.

The National Grid employees have been locked out of work since June without paychecks or health insurance. Their unemployment benefits were scheduled to run out in January, but the legislation given near-final approval on Friday would extend the benefits for another 26 weeks or whenever the lock-out ends, whichever is sooner.

The bill extends unemployment benefits to any locked-out worker in Massachusetts and requires all private employers to pick up the added cost. It represents a very pro-union stance by the Legislature, and it was passed in informal sessions, when a single legislator would have the power to block the legislation from moving forward.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The House gave up on its language, which would have confined the bill’s reach to utilities and required all the state’s utilities to pick up the added cost. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he wanted the House bill to target National Grid specifically, but he says it passed before he discovered it wasn’t drafted correctly.

Grid previously has offered an increase in wages (the company says the average salary of the workers is $120,000), job security after five years on the job, and an increase in pension benefits. The company wants to put new workers on 401Ks and require all workers to share more of the company’s health insurance costs, provisions the union has resisted.