National Grid takes pounding on Beacon Hill
Mother, DeLeo say health care should not be negotiating tool
NATIONAL GRID took a public relations pounding on Tuesday at a Beacon Hill hearing where steelworkers testified that the utility’s decision to lock them out in June had compromised public safety and the health and well-being of them, their spouses, and their children.
The workers and their union leaders did not dwell on the nitty gritty of the labor dispute or explain why they had been unable to come to an agreement. Instead, the workers testified, often tearfully, about how the company’s decision to lock them out had turned their lives upside down, taking away paychecks and health insurance benefits.
Brian and Michelle Harvey of Braintree described how they lost their health insurance while they were attempting to care for a young son struggling with cancer. “What National Grid did was wrong and it devastated us,” said Michelle, struggling to hold back tears. “All I can say is shame on them. Health care should not be a negotiating tool.”
Marcy Reed, the Massachusetts president of National Grid, testified toward the end of the three-hour hearing. She focused heavily on the specifics of the labor dispute and claimed repeatedly that the union was refusing to negotiate seriously. She noted the union had voted in June to strike, and the company was worried that employees might walk out in the middle of repairing a serious gas leak. “We couldn’t take that chance,” she said amid catcalls from the standing-room-only crowd of locked-out workers.
“Right now management has nothing to lose, and that’s precisely why I filed this bill,” O’Day said.
Lawmaker after lawmaker testified in support of the bill and most of the committee members, through their comments, indicated they supported the legislation. The Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, however, did not vote on the bill immediately as many lawmakers and union leaders had requested.
A separate bill that would have created an unemployment benefits program for locked-out workers sailed through the House Ways and Means Committee earlier in the day and gained initial approval in the House before stalling in the face of Republican concerns. In informal sessions, a single legislator can stop a bill from moving forward.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who has championed the cause of the locked-out workers, issued a statement saying lawmakers cannot stand by while a large, international company locks out its workers in an effort to gain leverage in a labor dispute. “Such reckless behavior by any large employer would be appalling, but it is even more egregious when undertaken by a public utility that has been granted a territorial monopoly by the Commonwealth,” his statement said. “When we grant a public utility, we expect that companies bear implicit responsibilities because of the special status conferred upon them.”
Rep. Thomas Golden, the House chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, said at the afternoon hearing that he found Reed’s suggestion that workers might go on strike in the middle of a job “somewhat insulting.” He said the company seemed to have a take-it-or-leave-it approach with its union. “This take-it-or-leave-it approach is unacceptable and unacceptable to the State House in general,” he said.
Sen. Michael Barrett, the Senate chair of the committee, urged Reed to restore health benefits to the company’s workers while labor negotiations continue, even if it means higher rates for National Grid customers. Reed indicated her company is already paying the health insurance costs of the replacement workers it has hired and wouldn’t pay the health insurance costs of the locked-out workers, too.
Reed said the company tried to reach an agreement on retirement benefits and health insurance in 2014 but finally gave up after two years of fruitless negotiations. She said the company warned the union that the utility’s approach would be different this year, and threatened a lockout. After the union voted to strike, the company locked the workers out in late June, forcing many of them to scramble to join the state’s Medicaid program and collect unemployment benefits.
Reed said Tuesday was the 163d day of the lockout and the union had been available to negotiate only 21 times over that period. Tom Ryan, Grid’s vice president for US employee and labor relations, said the union’s first and only counteroffer to the company’s proposal came after 150 days. “I have never seen anything like it ever,” he said.
Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton asked Reed if National Grid made $4.6 billion in profit last year. Reed said the London-based company was profitable, but she said the Massachusetts division was a negative contributor. She later clarified that the company did indeed make money in Massachusetts, but not as much as it was authorized to make by the Department of Public Utilities.
Many union members testified that Grid’s replacement workers were doing shoddy work and failing to repair gas leaks. But the most emotional testimony came from workers describing the emotional toll of losing a job and health benefits for an extended period of time. One said his son wakes up in pain every morning because dentists won’t accept MassHealth for root canals. Another said her daughter decided to drop out of UMass Lowell until the lockout ends. Chris Brennan, whose wife is struggling with cancer, called the company’s actions “economic terrorism.”
Steve Finnigan, a negotiator for the steelworker locals, said the bill is needed to rein in a company whose attitude is “take our terms or starve.” John Shinn, a regional steelworker union leader, said the company’s action are “disgusting, immoral, and have no place in modern America.”Steve Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, belittled National Grid’s recent characterization of the union counteroffer as pursuing the status quo. “Pursuing the status quo,” he said. “As if workers are supposed to be ashamed of that.” He also ripped Reed for describing a defined pension plan as an old-fashioned benefit.
Tolman cheered on the union for refusing to accept terms that most other unions have accepted. “I remember when I was a little guy and my mother would say, if Frankie jumped off a bridge would you jump, too?” he said. “This is not just a private sector dispute. This is a struggle between right and wrong.”