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Workers walk out over demands for concessions
Strike hits Boston utility

By Khury Petersen-Smith and Jessica Rothenberg | May 27, 2005 | Page 11

BOSTON--On May 17, 1,900 workers from the Utility Workers Union of America Local 369 walked out on strike against NStar, an eastern Massachusetts utility corporation.

Last month, 92 percent of union workers voted to strike. This is the first time that the local, which includes linemen, engineers and other utility workers, has gone on strike since 1986.

"They just announced how profitable they were at their annual stock meeting, and they don't have any money for us?" a striker named Doris told Socialist Worker, referring to NStar's April 28 announcement that it had taken in a net income of $46.3 million in the first quarter of 2005.

The union is demanding increased safety on the job and the hiring of more workers. On a daily basis, workers risk coming across "stray currents" and other hazards, which are the result of severe understaffing.

Throughout the 1990s, NStar eliminated 2,000 jobs by forced early retirement and other forms of attrition--increasing NStar's profitability at the expense of workers' safety. Additionally, understaffing has led to forced overtime, which also has led to dangerous working conditions.

The union is also striking to save retirement benefits and health care and dental coverage. "There's only so much you can give back," said Diane, one of the striking workers. "We're not giving back on health care. We can't afford to."

The other key demand of the strike is the recognition of same-sex marriages and full-benefit coverage for workers and their partners. When same-sex marriage passed in Massachusetts a year ago, NStar was one of a few companies that publicly refused to recognize these relationships. NStar has said that it will only recognize domestic partnerships, which denies pension benefits to workers' families.

The strike is an example of workers fighting back at a time when companies around the nation are imposing concessionary contracts on unions. "Workers across the country need to take a stand and push back," said Dave Sharaffa, a technical investigator in Local 369.

The strike has already garnered a great deal of local support. Some 296 fellow NStar workers in United Steel Workers of America Local 12004 in Worcester, Mass., have pledged not to cross Local 369's picket lines, as have members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 104. On the night the strike began, the Cambridge City Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of Local 369.

Managers and non-union workers are being used to break the strike. In addition to picket lines outside of NStar facilities, Local 369 is sending out mobile pickets to follow scabs to worksites. The tactic is working, with several reports of scabs packing up and abandoning jobs when picketed.

Aggressive actions like these will be crucial in battle with a company that's out to break the union. On May 19, NStar announced that it was cutting the health benefits of all of the striking workers.

"We had a go-around with this company in 1998," Local 369 President Gary Sullivan told Socialist Worker. "They fired six workers because they wanted to join the union. We won their jobs back, but it took pickets 24/7. This CEO spent millions--money is no object to him." About the current strike, Sullivan said, "It's going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight. But we're ready to fight."

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