Pols putting pressure on National Grid

Push bill thrusting state into middle of labor dispute

Momentum seems to be building on Beacon Hill, particularly in the generally more conservative House, to hold a hearing on precedent-setting legislation that would thrust the state into the middle of a private labor dispute.

The legislation, filed by Rep. James O’Day of West Boylston, targets National Grid, which locked out 1,250 steelworkers in June when the company and the union were unable to reach an agreement on a new contract. The bill would require Grid to provide health insurance benefits to its locked-out workers and deprive the utility of public funds to maintain or upgrade its gas distribution system and rate increases for its gas and electricity distribution businesses. All of the bill’s provisions would automatically expire when the lockout ends.

O’Day, who discussed his legislation on The Codcast, said he spent 25 years as a social worker and a member and officer of the Service Employees International Union. He said he was shocked that National Grid would just walk away from the bargaining table.

“I just don’t think that’s the way we should be conducting business here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he said. “I felt so strongly about what was going on there that I thought I needed to file a bill that would at least, hopefully, get the attention of some of my colleagues, certainly get the attention of National Grid, and hopefully force them back – maybe force isn’t a great word – but at least get them back to the bargaining table.”

O’Day’s bill, filed in July when the Legislature was rushing to wrap up its business for the year, didn’t go anywhere initially. National Grid officials say the bill shouldn’t go anywhere. They say the federal National Labor Relations Act preempts state laws that seek to intervene in federally regulated labor disputes. The utility also says O’Day’s bill violates the US Constitution because it seeks to punish a specific company. (Nevertheless, the utility added another firm – Kearney, Donovan & McGee – to its already well-stocked lobbying payroll on July 2.)

In September, a series of fires and explosions rocked the gas distribution system of Columbia Gas in the Merrimack Valley. That disaster, and a subsequent over-pressurization situation that was resolved without incident in Woburn – part of National Grid’s territory – fed a narrative that the state’s gas distribution system was unsafe and Grid’s replacement workers might not be up to the job.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration responded by barring National Grid from doing most field work and the governor himself pressured the utility to put the steelworkers back on the job. Attorney General Maura Healey piled on as well, raising concerns that Grid was failing to comply with safety and quality standards with its workers locked out.

O’Day’s bill suddenly popped up on the House floor on October 25 and was referred to the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy. The Senate waited until last Tuesday to admit the bill, setting the stage for a hearing on the legislation as early as this week.

The politics surrounding O’Day’s bill are interesting. As you might expect, union groups are supportive while business interests are opposed. Associated Industries of Massachusetts earlier this month raised concerns about the legislation, saying it sets a “dangerous precedent” for government to take sides in negotiations between companies and their workers. “If lawmakers interject in the National Grid lockout, what would prevent them from also becoming involved in disputes involving manufacturing, service, or technology companies across the commonwealth?” the business group asked in a blog post.

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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.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, normally aligned with business, has met with the steelworkers, taken a personal interest in O’Day’s legislation, pressured National Grid, and pressed for a hearing. The liberal Senate, meanwhile, has been a bit standoffish, showing more interest in scheduling oversight hearings on pipeline safety in general than targeting National Grid for its lockout.

The measure is unlikely to get a vote before the end of the year, in part because in informal legislative sessions the objection of just one lawmaker is enough to stop a bill. A hearing – and the pressure it would bring to bear on National Grid – appears to be the goal of the union’s supporters on Beacon Hill.