Gas lockout endangers everyone

National Grid putting profits before people

LAST FALL, NATIONAL GRID employee Scott Ambler helped prevent what could have been a potentially devastating gas explosion in Weymouth. Ambler was not assigned to the job; instead he was passing by the site when he noticed water contractors digging around what they thought was a water pipe, but which Ambler knew immediately was a gas main.

Why were the water contractors so confused? Because the contractors National Grid hired to mark out the main failed to properly do so. Ambler jumped in and was lauded for his quick thinking and vigilance, which prevented a massive ignition of gas that could have killed or severely injured workers.

So why is Ambler today sitting on the sidelines, locked out by National Grid, while the same markout contractors are continuing to work somewhere in Massachusetts?

John Buonopane

When National Grid decided to lockout 1,200 of its most experienced employees last month, the company removed centuries of collective experience from complex and often highly dangerous job sites. These workers provide crucial gas services to 85 Massachusetts cities and towns, including protecting and maintaining key infrastructure and repairing dangerous gas leaks.

During the lockout, National Grid is relying on a combination of contractors and management staff. The company’s goal is clear: Force union members to sign a contract that slashes benefits for young workers, pushing them out of the middle class, and that allows more inexperienced – and cheap – contract workers to handle gas projects.

We’re already seeing the consequences of the lockout. In Lowell, a third-party contractor was observed excavating within 200 feet of a National Grid high pressure regulator pit, and without a National Grid inspector onsite. This serious safety hazard is forbidden.

Joe Kirylo

In Amesbury, National Grid replacement workers filled emergency valves with sand in violation of the company’s own operations and maintenance manual. These valves regulate the gas flow between high pressure pipes and the pipes that lead to homes and buildings. They must be kept clear so that gas can be quickly shut off in case of emergency.

In Dorchester, where massive tanks abut the highway, National Grid is bringing in cots so managers can sleep onsite because there aren’t enough experienced employees to operate the facility safely.

Some communities such as Lowell are so concerned about safety that they’ve halted non-emergency gas work, such as the installation of a new gas main, until experienced employees are back on the job. City councilors have cited concerns about oversight and risk during the lockout as reasons for the decision.

‘When you’re dealing with something as dangerous as natural gas, you obviously want the best,’ Lowell City Councilor Dave Conway reportedly said during a recent City Council meeting.

These are just a few examples of the safety impacts. The lockout is also taking a toll on employees. National Grid terminated health insurance coverage for workers and their families at the end of June. Some employees have kids and spouses who are battling cancer and other serious medical conditions. Now they’re left scrambling to find – and pay for – coverage during the lockout.

Most unfortunate is that all of this could have been prevented.

In 2016, our unions had a contract with National Grid that expired in February of that year. Our members didn’t ratify a new contract until five months later, in July 2016. During this time there was no lockout. Workers continued to do their jobs – ensuring that competent, safe, and reliable gas service was delivered to communities across Massachusetts.

So what has changed? Nothing, except National Grid’s position. Let’s be clear. National Grid did not have to lock out workers. Instead of agreeing to a contract extension while negotiations continue, the company chose to lock out 1,200 of its most experienced employees.

National Grid is extremely profitable. In May, the company bragged about profits soaring 24 percent over the previous year. Its FY2018 pretax profit was $3.66 billion, up from $2.18 billion the year prior. The company received a massive tax cut from the Trump administration and is currently seeking tens of millions of dollars from Massachusetts consumers during its upcoming rate case.

National Grid has the resources to negotiate a fair contract that prioritizes public safety and that protects quality, middle-class jobs for its employees who work in dangerous and hazardous conditions. Why it refuses to do so remains a mystery.

Instead, this is where we are. National Grid has locked out its experienced workers for more than two weeks now, while the company oversees sloppy, poorly performed work done by replacement contractors who lack the experience and expertise to do it properly.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
It’s time for National Grid to do the right thing for Massachusetts workers and communities: end the lockout and return to the bargaining table.

John Buonopane is president of United Steelworkers Local 12012. Joe Kirylo is president of United Steelworkers Local 12003.