DeLeo acknowledges drafting error in Grid bill

Legislation faces uncertain future in the Senate


AS THE HOUSE on Dec. 6 passed legislation authorizing wage benefits for locked out utility workers, House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced that the utility responsible for locking out its workers would be on the hook for any related costs under the bill.

That’s still the intent, but it appears that’s not reflected in the bill that was rushed through the House on a voice vote and with no debate.

As steelworkers’ union representatives swarmed the State House Monday to pressure the Senate to act on the bill, word began to circulate in the capitol that the House bill would require all electric or gas utilities to cover extended benefits for employees locked out by any one utility. The bill is on the move because National Grid locked out 1,200 of its natural gas workers in June and many of those workers face the end of unemployment benefits in January.

The News Service inquired with DeLeo’s office because the Winthrop Democrat had said previously the House bill (H 4988) protected taxpayers and ratepayers by “assuring that the cost of these benefits fall solely to the employer responsible for the lockout.”

“The intent of the legislation is that any utility which locks out its employees should be required to fund the benefit program established by the legislation to provide benefits to locked-out workers upon the expiration of their unemployment insurance benefits,” DeLeo spokeswoman Catherine Williams said in a statement to the News Service. “The Speaker intends to discuss the correction of this drafting error with the Senate President and, if necessary, the House stands ready to make additional changes if the bill is returned.”

Twenty-five senators wrote a letter on Nov. 1 to Senate Ways and Means Committee Vice Chair Sen. Joan Lovely asking her panel to release a bill (S 2108) extending unemployment benefits an additional 26 weeks for workers who have been locked out by their employers. They said the bill was filed initially in response to the August 2015 lockout by Allegheny Technologies of 2,200 workers at 12 facilities in six states, including a New Bedford facility.

Senate President Karen Spilka and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr on Dec. 10 called on National Grid to “end their lockout immediately.”

“This process has gone on long enough, and the Senate is prepared to take action if needed,” Spilka and Tarr said at the time, though Spilka has not said what would trigger her to act. Tarr said Monday if the Senate does act, it should do so before the new session starts on Jan. 2, but he also said he’d rather see National Grid and the unions come to terms without legislative intervention.

Union leaders suggested before Monday’s Senate session that the Senate’s “uncertain position” was strengthening National Grid’s position, but the pressure did not spur Senate action and the House-approved lockout bill and the Senate bill remain before Senate Ways and Means. After a three-hour session Monday filled with speeches from departing members, the Senate adjourned until Thursday.

United Steelworkers Locals 12012 and 12003 have been unable to agree over health insurance, pension and other contract terms since late June when the previous contracts expired and National Grid made the decision to lockout the gas workers.

National Grid and representatives of the United Steelworkers met Thursday, Friday, Monday and plan to meet again on Tuesday.

National Grid spokeswoman Danielle Williamson said the two sides talked Monday about operational issues that are important to the unions.

“We told the unions we are going to put a revised offer on the table before the end of the week,” she said. “We remain focused on reaching an agreement before Christmas, and believe the quickest way to a resolution is to stay at the bargaining table and negotiate an agreement that is fair to all parties.”

John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, presidents of USW Local 12012 and 12003, said after Monday’s talks that the union last week “presented a variety of new options to National Grid that would meet the needs of our members while also addressing the priorities outlined by the company.

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“National Grid made $4.8 billion after taxes last year and the cost-savings options we discussed would result in additional savings for the company,” Buonopane and Kirylo said. “At the same time, our members have been locked out without a paycheck for nearly six months, while residents, businesses, developers and communities across Massachusetts must continue to deal with the fallout of National Grid’s reckless decision. We hope that the company will approach tomorrow’s negotiating session with the sense of urgency that this situation deserves.”

They added, “At the same time, we hope that the Senate will pass legislation that offers much needed protections for our workers and safeguards a critical economic lifeline – particularly since National Grid continues to use members’ paychecks and their families’ health insurance as bargaining tools during these negotiations. This bill is crucial to helping so many local workers and their families during this very difficult holiday season.”