House, Senate at odds on Grid legislation

Senate Oks extension of benefits, no response in House

THE SENATE APPROVED legislation on Thursday that would extend the unemployment benefits of 1,250 locked-out National Grid workers, but the measure, at least temporarily, stalled in the House, which passed its own bill on December 6.

House officials offered no explanation for their inaction, but they said they would return for another informal session on Friday. In the morning, after the Senate had approved its version of the legislation. House Speaker Robert DeLeo pledged to work with the Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker to get a bill passed.

“I am aware that implementation concerns have been raised about both versions of the bill and the House stands ready to work to address those issues,” DeLeo said in the statement. “Today, I am asking Governor Baker to submit specific feedback and suggested language to the House and Senate, and I am committed to reaching resolution on this issue. Further, the House is prepared to keep session open and hold additional sessions until we reach a resolution.”

Both the House and Senate bills would extend the unemployment benefits of employees locked out by their employer until the lock-out ends or 26 weeks, whichever is shorter. The Senate bill would apply to all firms and put the cost of the additional benefits on all employers. The House bill targets only utilities and assesses the cost of the additional benefits on the utilities. House Speaker Robert DeLeo originally said the House bill required the company that locked out its workers to pay the cost of the additional benefits, but he later admitted it wasn’t drafted that way.

Both branches are operating in informal sessions, where just a handful of lawmakers are on hand in each chamber and any one legislator can doubt the presence of a quorum and bring a halt to the proceedings. No one objected on Thursday, suggesting National Grid has no champions on Beacon Hill.

A difference in tone is emerging among Republicans and Democrats on the National Grid issue. Republicans described the extension of unemployment benefits as a humanitarian issue, and tried not to take sides in the labor dispute. Democrats wanted to help the workers, but they also lambasted National Grid for locking out its unionized workers in June and depriving them of paychecks and health insurance.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, with a large number of steelworkers looking on, called the Senate legislation “fair and reasonable” and said it would “prevent economic hardship and harm to the employees and their families.”

Tarr steered clear of the labor dispute itself. “This is a limited, reasonable, and fair approach to deal with that situation,” he said. “There is plenty of incentive to continue negotiating.”

Baker struck a similar tone on Wednesday – expressing sympathy for the plight of the locked-out workers while trying not to take sides in the labor dispute itself.

DeLeo, by contrast, clearly feels National Grid has gone too far with its lock-out. “The Commonwealth cannot sit idly by while a large, international conglomerate volitionally locks out employees in a transparent effort to enhance its leverage in a negotiation, while passing on the cost for this misguided strategy to the taxpayers and ratepayers of the Commonwealth,” he said. “I reiterate my call that National Grid end the lock out, and that both parties be at the table negotiating in good faith, around the clock while putting the employees back to work. The focus needs to be on the damage this lockout has caused the Commonwealth: The public safety concerns, the cost, and especially the harm that is being done to these families is unacceptable.”

National Grid and the steelworker unions spent much of Thursday negotiating, and Grid said it was preparing a new contract offer for Friday. The company had been offering a pay hike (the utility says the current average salary of the workers is $120,000 a year), job security, and an increase in pension benefits, while asking that newly hired workers be shifted on to 401Ks and all employees pay a greater share of their health insurance costs.

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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.

John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, the presidents of the two steelworker locals, issued a joint statement saying they appreciated the progress the Legislature was making with workers unemployment benefits scheduled to expire in January. “This bill provides a critical economic lifeline for our workers during this very difficult time. We strongly urge the governor and Legislature to continue work on this issue tomorrow as our members hope for a resolution,” they said.

A National Grid spokeswoman said the legislation under consideration “would upset the balance of collective bargaining for all employers in the Commonwealth with unionized workforces.”

The spokeswoman, Danielle Williamson, said the utility had noticed that union negotiators had shown “a disappointing decrease” in engagement during the day on Thursday.