National Grid explains its lockout

'We've never made a harder decision'

AT NATIONAL GRID, we’ve always taken pride in our ability to negotiate fair, multiyear labor contracts with our unions and to provide robust compensation packages to our employees, who provide important services to our gas and electric customers.

We are a heavily unionized company.  We have about 10,000 unionized employees in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York, who are represented by more than a dozen different unions.  We respect our employees’ right to join and be represented by unions, and we negotiate in good faith to reach agreements that benefit our employees, while not overburdening our customers, who pay our employees’ wages and benefits.  Our negotiating team has bargained scores of contracts over the last two decades with our unions, without a work stoppage or disruption.

So, it was a difficult and unusual decision that we made in the early morning hours of June 25. After the expiration of the last contract following months of negotiations and years of discussions, we notified two Steelworkers locals in eastern Massachusetts that we would not allow our 1,250 employees who they represent to continue working without a new, multiyear agreement that meets the needs of both our employees and customers.  Since then, experienced and trained management employees and contractors have been responding safely to all potential gas emergencies.

We’ve never made a harder decision.  So how did it come to this?

There are two sticking points.  First, we proposed to add modest employee deductibles and coinsurance to our group health insurance plans.  Currently, employees in these two unions, unlike the overwhelming majority of our workforce, pay no deductibles and have no coinsurance.  The other issue is our proposal to offer newly hired employees a completely company-funded defined contribution/401(k) plan with contributions of 3 percent to 9 percent matched to an employee’s base and overtime pay.

To put these proposals in perspective — in the last five years in Massachusetts, 10 unions representing roughly 2,100 of our gas and electric employees have agreed to health insurance and new hire retirement plans comparable to what we have proposed to the Steelworkers.  In all, 16 unions representing 8,400 of our employees have agreed to comparable plans.  Moreover, these proposals are similar to what the Steelworkers union has agreed to with other utilities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Marcy Reed of National Grid.

We have not proposed that any employees lose their pension.  In fact, we offered a 10 percent pension increase by 2021 for employees currently represented by the Steelworkers.  We have also offered wage increases of 13.75 percent over the life of a proposed five-year contract, which through compounding would result in actual wage increases of more than 14.5 percent, as well as job security guarantees for employees with at least five years of service. In our final offer, we included no proposals to increase our use of outside contractors in place of our own employees.

National Grid is a profitable, investor-owned company. Having a strong rate of return attracts investors, which allows us to make the necessary up-front funding for system maintenance and improvements.  And being a profitable company attracts our employees – union and management alike – who receive great benefits and a challenging work environment. Our employees deserve good wages for the skilled work they perform.

So, why did we not extend the contracts while we continued to bargain?  In the last round of bargaining with these two locals in 2016, we had agreed to extend the existing contracts for months in an effort to reach five-year contracts with health insurance and new hire retirement modifications.  Ultimately, we were unsuccessful and settled on two-year contracts to avoid a work stoppage.

This year, we made similar proposals.  The unions did not change their position from 2016 regarding retirement plans for new hires.  With no progress being made and the need to come to a resolution after years of discussions, we didn’t feel it would be productive, or in our customers’ best interest, to continue to extend the contracts indefinitely, as the unions had proposed, while we continue to bargain.

As a consequence of that decision, while employees are not working to serve our customers, who pay for their salaries and benefits, they also are not receiving paychecks and their benefits have lapsed. They may elect to continue on National Grid’s plan at their own expense.

To be clear: notwithstanding the work stoppage, the company has never walked away from the bargaining table, and we have communicated to federal mediators that we look forward to continuing negotiations at the unions’ earliest availability.

There is nothing more important to the company than the safety of our customers, employees, and the general public.  Federal law requires that our workforce is trained, qualified, and able to demonstrate the skills required to operate and work on the gas system.  All who are executing gas safety and maintenance work through our work continuation plan meet all federal and state requirements and have demonstrated the competencies to work on the gas system.

We have confidence in every employee and contractor working on our gas system.  We regularly conduct appropriate reviews and investigations of our worksites and, if any safety concerns are noted or observed, we take prompt and appropriate action – just as we do with our unionized employees.

I am confident that, with good faith and good will on both sides of the bargaining table, we and the unions working together can bring these issues to a resolution — for the sake of our employees and their families and our customers and the communities that depend on us.

Meet the Author
Since June 25, we have communicated to the unions and a federal mediator our availability to meet with them seven days a week. Through the federal mediator, we have been provided two dates, including our next session scheduled for Tuesday, July 17. We are committed to bargaining in good faith, and we will continue to be available each and every day until we reach a fair agreement that balances and meets the needs of our employees and our customers.

Marcy Reed is Massachusetts president and executive vice president for US policy and social impact at National Grid.