Lawmakers revive bill to pressure National Grid
Measure would require utility to extend health benefits, deny rate increases during lockout
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
THE HOUSE APPEARS ready to begin ratcheting up the pressure on National Grid to end its lockout of more 1,250 union gas workers, reviving a three-month-old bill that would force the utility to extend health benefits to the locked out employees and deny the company any rate increases or public money for maintenance until the labor dispute is resolved.
The bill, which has languished since it was filed in July by Rep. Jim O’Day, suddenly surfaced in the House on Thursday morning and was referred to the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee.
Union leaders then met with House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who told them he hoped to have a hearing by mid-November, which would give gas workers a public forum at the State House to air their grievances with National Grid and the state of contract negotiations.
“We’d like to be able to make people aware of what we know,” Buonopane said.
The News Service reported earlier this week that the number of gas leaks repaired during the three-month lockout has fallen 53 percent percent from the same period last year, and union officials are worried that National Grid is unprepared to deal with the heightened danger leaks pose as frost sets in.
Rep. Thomas Golden, House chair of the energy committee, said that he has not yet reviewed O’Day’s bill, but confirmed plans made with the speaker’s office to hold a hearing on the bill prior to a separate oversight hearing the committee is planning on the Merrimack Valley gas explosions and pipeline safety.
“This should happen beforehand and be two independent hearings and I think it will give us an opportunity to start exploring some of the costs associated with this,” Golden said of the O’Day bill.
Golden and Sen. Michael Barrett have stated that the Merrimack Valley oversight hearing would take place after the Nov. 19 deadline for gas service to be restored in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, and Golden said the committee is eyeing Nov. 26 or Nov. 27 for that hearing.
Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, president of United Steel Workers Local 12003, also said they spoke with DeLeo about extending unemployment benefits for locked out workers beyond the 26 to 30 weeks typically allowed.
“We think National Grid might just be trying to wait us out,” Buonopane said.
“We appreciate the Speaker’s interest in encouraging an end to the lockout and returning our employees back to work,” spokeswoman Christine Milligan said. “As we have stated publicly, when we last met on October 19 we modified our June 25 contract offer by proposing to increase, by roughly 10 percent, the existing employees’ pension benefits immediately upon reaching agreements with the unions. We also provided specific proposals to the unions on operational issues and more union jobs.”
Milligan said that National Grid stands ready to resume negotiations before Oct. 29, which is the next date the unions said they could meet after last Friday’s session. “We look forward to meeting with them at that time (or sooner, should they wish to) and will continue to communicate our availability for more frequent and productive conversations in hopes of advancing negotiations with both unions,” Milligan said.
O’Day said that he had been under the impression when he filed his bill in July that there would be an opportunity for it to be heard in committee, but he said the Sept. 13 gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley and the emergency response efforts overshadowed his petition. He called the upcoming hearing “somewhat precedent setting” in that it will happen after the Legislature recessed from formal sessions for the year, and he hoped National Grid would get the message that lawmakers want to see the lockout end.
“This is not a strike,” O’Day said. “It’s a lockout and these people want to go back to work while they continue to negotiate. That’s the way we try to do things here in Massachusetts.”
Locked out gas workers rallied outside the State House on Thursday morning before coming inside to try to round up legislative support for a letter it planned to send to Department of Public Utilities Chair Angela O’Connor asking the DPU to more aggressively police pipeline safety violations, and start issuing fines against National Grid.
The two Steel Workers unions also plan to rally Friday outside the British Consulate in Cambridge with members of Unite the Union, the United Kingdom’s largest trade union, to call attention to the lockout in the United States. National Grid is headquartered in the London.
Buonopane and Kirylo said their unions have bought equipment that has enabled a small group of locked out workers to travel around and detect potentially hazardous gas leaks. Kirylo said that the union has reported 30 Grade 1 gas leaks to DPU and since last week has identified 21 more that will be documented and reported.
Kirylo said that as temperatures fall and the ground freezes, gas leaks that go unvented by National Grid due to lack of workers will start to migrate underground, and could be sucked into basements through foundations by heating systems that homeowners are turning on.
“I hate to say this but the way it’s going now and the cold weather coming in December or whenever, it’s not a matter of if they’re going to have a house explode, to me, it’s a matter of when they’re going to have a house explode,” Kirylo said.
The DPU has said that it planned to hire an independent evaluator to examine the safety of the entire state’s gas distribution system, but it’s been a month since the agency made that announcement. The DPU said it planned to use an “expedited procurement” in consultation with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, but a spokesman for DPU said this week the agency was still “in the process” of hiring the evaluator.
Earlier this week, the News Service reported how National Grid had provided information to the DPU showing how the volume of work done by replacement gas contractors is down considerably during the lockout period compared to the three previous years, while costs for the utility have climbed 2 percent.
The documented decline in the number of repaired leaks was accompanied by data showing that the number of crews working were also way down, from 432 one-person customer metering crews in 2017 to 199 this year, and from 271 three-person construction and maintenance crews last year to 116 in late summer this year.
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office wrote to National Grid on Wednesday regarding the information the utility provided the DPU. Assistant Attorney General Rebecca Tepper said that it “reveals concerning trends that raise further questions regarding the safe and efficient operation of the Company’s system and the costs being incurred during the lockout.”
Tepper requested that National Grid provide the attorney general’s office “a narrative that discusses the reduction in work, the increase in expenditures, and their impact on customer costs and the Company’s responsibility to provide safe, efficient and reliable natural gas service during the lockout.”
The O’Day bill has 19 co-sponsors, including one senator – Sen. Barbara L’Italien of Andover. It proposes to restrict public funds from going to National Grid for use on the gas distribution system, including a prohibition on the company from applying for Chapter 90 funds for the maintenance and improvement of gate boxes located in streets and sidewalks.
The legislation also proposes to prohibit the DPU from approving any rate increases for consumer gas or electric distribution as long as the lockout continues and directs National Grid to restore health benefits for locked out workers.
All of the restrictions would be repealed automatically when the lockout ends.
DeLeo has called on National Grid to end the lockout, and recently wrote to Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan asking the Baker administration to provide an analysis of the how much the lockout has cost the state by increasing caseloads at MassHealth and in food or cash assistance accessed by gas workers through the Department of Transitional Assistance, lost income or sales taxes to the state and the impact on the unemployment insurance trust fund.
“Speaker DeLeo looks forward to learning more about the bill as it is heard by the TUE Committee. In addition, he continues to await a response from A&F to his request for information about the state’s healthcare and other related costs relating to the locked out workers,” spokeswoman Catherine Williams said.The administration has said it is working to provide the information requested by the speaker.