The Codcast: Natl. Grid says lockout all about its customers

The Massachusetts president of National Grid defends the nearly four-month lockout of 1,250 workers by saying the company is doing what it needs to do to bring its costs in line and protect customers from excessive charges.

It’s an interesting line of reasoning at a time when union leaders and their supporters are saying the company is putting profits ahead of public safety. To buttress their point, the unions and their allies regularly note that National Grid is a British company that earned more than $4.6 billion in profits last year.

Marcy Reed, the Massachusetts president and executive vice president for US policy and social impact at National Grid, says on the Codcast that the utility had three options when the contracts of its two steelworker locals expired on June 24. The union could strike, which its members had voted to do, she says. The company could keep the workers on under the terms of the current contract while the two sides continued negotiating, which is what the union says it wanted. Reed, however, says National Grid tried that approach two years ago but had no success in reducing costs. “We didn’t feel it would result in any productive conversations,” she says.

The third option – and the one the company chose – was to lock out the workers, leaving them with no jobs and no health care coverage. Politicians across the state have rallied to the side of the workers, particularly after the September gas explosions and fires in the service area of Columbia Gas in the Merrimack Valley and an overpressurization incident in Woburn, National Grid’s service territory, earlier this month. Regulators have limited what work National Grid’s management employees and contractors can do in the field, but Reed says the company doesn’t regret the lockout.

“It was one [decision] we felt and continue to feel that we needed to make in order to maintain the safety and reliability of the gas system in the 85 communities in which these two union locals serve,” Reed says.

“These two unions are asking for a set of traditional – I’ll use the word old-fashioned – benefit plans that most of America doesn’t have. Certainly no one in National Grid has,” she says. “In fact, the steelworkers themselves have negotiated and accepted these benefits and even less with every other utility in New England. For me, it comes back to why are we even having this conversation.”

The utility says it’s five-year offer to the two unions includes pay increases that will boost the current average employee salary from $120,000 a year, including overtime, to $137,000. The offer also includes a 10 percent increase in the pension plan for current employees. New employees, however, would be assigned to a 401k plan with a 3 to 9 percent company match. The company’s health insurance proposal would also introduce deductibles and coinsurance for the first time.

Union officials say National Grid is not treating all employees equally. “The tactic of hoping older employees will sacrifice the benefits of new hires is a disgraceful attempt to drive a wedge between employees,” the union says on its website.

As for National Grid’s profitability, Reed says that has nothing to do with the union negotiations. “Yes, we were fortunate last year to have a profit. We are a large company, so the numbers to some are eye-watering, and they [the unions] point that out,” Reed says. “However, any regulated utility, electric or gas, the way it works is you add up the costs you spend on people trucks, computers , health care, etc., and pass it along to your customers. That’s how it works. And I refuse to do that at a level that is not sustainable for the customers that we have. No other customers in New England are paying the level of the costs for these benefits that we’re forcing our customers to pay for. It has nothing to do with what the company outside the regulated entity made. It’s getting our costs to our customers sustainable.”

BRUCE MOHL


SYNAGOGUE MASSACRE

A man who allegedly told police he “wanted all Jews to die” and regularly spewed anti-Semitic hate on social media sites walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and gunned down 11 worshippers before being shot by police and forced to surrender. (New York Times) At a memorial vigil on Boston Common, Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston mayor Marty Walsh, and others mourned the killings. (Boston Globe) Jeff Jacoby laments the fact that the “venom” of fanatical bigots, once confined to the fringes, now finds openings to seep “into the mainstream.” (Boston Globe) Baker said President Trump’s remarks that the Pittsburgh synagogue should have had armed guards were not helpful. (Boston Herald) A Bedford man is the brother of one of those killed, Jerry Rabinowitz, a 66-year-old physician. (Boston Herald)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Three Cape towns — Eastham, Orleans, and Falmouth — have launched a study using a state grant to look at “form based zoning” that would place housing outside traditional residential neighborhoods in an effort to relieve some of the pressure over the shortage of places to live for year-round residents. (Cape Cod Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Lawyers for the Trump Foundation, defending the organization against charges of self-dealing in a suit by the New York Attorney General, said Donald Trump bid $10,000 from foundation funds on his portrait to get auction bidding started. When no one else bid, “he’s stuck with the painting,” said the lawyers. (Bloomberg)

Renee Loth decries the Trump administration policies that have as many as 250 migrant children being detained separately from their parents at the US-Mexican border. (Boston Globe)

ELECTIONS

The Boston Globe endorses Charlie Baker for reelection — but appropriates the slogan of his challenger, Jay Gonzalez, by urging him to “aim higher” and says he should “swing for the fences, even at the risk of striking out” in taking a bolder approach to issues in a second term.  Baker is also endorsed by the Boston Herald,  Lowell Sun and Telegram & Gazette. Former governor Deval Patrick says his position at Bain Capital prevents him from campaigning for his one-time aide, Gonzalez. (Eagle-Tribune)

A new Boston Globe poll shows support for Question 1 falling, with the measure, which would mandate minimum nurse staffing levels in hospitals, losing by a wide margin among likely voters who were surveyed.

US Rep. Stephen Lynch, running unopposed, said in a wide-ranging interview he believes Democrats will take over the House and “rebalance” the relationship between Congress and the White House. (Keller@Large) Thomas P. O’Neill III says Massachusetts will stand tall if Democrats regain control of the House. (CommonWealth)

Republican Plymouth district attorney Timothy Cruz is facing a fiesty challenge from Democrat John Bradley, a one-time prosecutor in his office whom Cruz fired and who went on to successfully sue Cruz for wrongful termination. (Boston Globe)

US Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont comes out in favor of Question 1, which sets mandatory nurse-staffing ratios. (MassLive)

March For Our Lives: Boston says Gov. Charlie Baker has been a bystander, not a leader, on gun legislation. (CommonWealth)

Soon-to-be former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as House Speaker even though she’s not a member? Don’t laugh, it’s being discussed by some because the Constitution does not bar it. (National Review)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Modular home construction is hitting its stride — and Boston is becoming a big market for the trend. (Boston Globe)

Some General Electric investors hope the embattled company cuts or suspends dividends when it issues its quarterly report this week, hoping instead the one-time industrial giant uses the cash to fix the business rather than cutting checks to shareholders. (Wall Street Journal)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Edward M. Murphy asks: Why does Humira cost much less in Europe? (CommonWealth)

TRANSPORTATION

Chris Dempsey of Transportation for Massachusetts and Phineas Baxandall of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center lay out what’s missing from the state’s five-year capital plan. (MetroWest Daily News)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The idea to change federal laws to allow the killing of sharks or their main food source, seals, is gaining support from some Cape residents and officials though not much backing elsewhere. (Cape Cod Times)

John DeVillars and Daniel Sosland say the tragedy in the Merrimack Valley offers a climate change opportunity. (CommonWealth)

The final phase of Superfund dredging below the tide line of New Bedford Harbor to rid the sediment of PCBs carried from industrial operations along the Assabet River is slated to be completed next year, 15 years after the clean-up began. (Standard-Times)

Italy’s wine industry is feeling the damaging effects of climate change with more diseases, accelerated ripening, and singed skins of grapes from intense sunlight. (Washington Post)

CASINOS/MARIJUANA

Massachusetts is not the only place where some cities and towns are resisting marijuana. A number of Florida communities have enacted bans on medical marijuana despite voters approving it two years ago. (Tribune News Service)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Middleboro police arrested a 21-year-old man at his home who they say has been terrorizing town roads for two months, speeding on his motorcycle of speeds in excess of 100, taunting police with obscene gestures, and damaging town-owned vehicles by stopping and kicking in the sides. (The Enterprise)

MEDIA

Gab.com, the alternative social media network used by the suspect in the shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue, shuts down after app stores, hosting providers, and payment processors walk away. The website, favored by conservatives, says it has been smeared by the national media. (NPR)

Northwestern University says local news across the country is in crisis, but there are some promising signs. (Northwestern)

PASSINGS

Legendary Brockton High School football coach Armond Colombo, whose legacy is not so much the record 316 wins or nine state championships but the number of his players who went to college who otherwise would not have been able to, died from a heart attack over the weekend. He was 87. (The Enterprise)