Con Ed workers need support

Natalia Tylim reports on the struggle of union workers locked out by New York City's electricity provider--and the opportunities to build solidarity for them.

ConEd workers on the picket linesConEd workers on the picket lines

"WHATEVER IT takes!" This is the slogan seen on posters and picket lines around New York City--and planted in the minds of the 8,500 Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) workers who have been locked out of their jobs by a multibillion-dollar company since July 1.

With a contract expiration looming, Con Ed, the electric utility that services most of New York City and Westchester County to the north, came to negotiations with Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 1-2 with a "final offer" and an ultimatum: "Sign it or get out."

The union offered to keep its members at work under the old contract amid a scorching heat wave--but when it refused to promise a week's notice before a future walkout, Con Ed imposed the lockout. The company had clearly planned ahead--on the first day of the lockout, it claimed to have a workforce of 5,000 managers, retirees and scabs to keep up operations.

Although Con Ed's offer includes a 10 percent raise over four years, this would actually be a pay cut when concessions on benefits are taken into account. Management wants to dismantle the pension system for all workers with less than six years of seniority, thereby creating a two-tier pension system, and increase health care costs for workers by 30 percent.

This "offer" was by no means a negotiating position--it was the company saying it was out to break the back of the union. Con Ed is prepared to do "whatever it takes" to get rid of some of the last solid, union jobs in New York City--even though the company boasted revenues of $13.3 billion and profits of $2.1 billion in 2010.

But this highly profitable company wants to make even more--and to do that, it's attacking union workers.

What you can do

New Yorkers can join a rally for a fair contract on July 17 at 5:30 p.m. at Union Square. The demonstration, called by UWUA Local 1-2 and the New York City Central Labor Council, will assemble at the Con Ed headquarters picket line at 4 Irving Place at 4:30 p.m.

Get on the union's text-alert system by texting "UWUA" to 877-877.

Visit one of the picket lines at:
-- Headquarters, 4 Irving Place, Manhattan
-- 125th Street Office, 360 W. 125th St., Manhattan
-- 110th Street Yard, 2141 1st Ave., Manhattan
-- The Learning Center, 43-82 Vernon Blvd., Long Island City
-- Astoria Yard, 31-01 20th Ave., Astoria
-- Flatbush Office, 30 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn
-- 3rd Avenue Yard, 222 1st St., Brooklyn
-- Neptune Yard, 1201 Neptune Ave., Brooklyn
-- College Point Yard, 124-15 31st Ave., Queens
-- Hillside Office, 88-11 165th St., Jamaica
-- Fordham Yard, 448 East Fordham Rd., Bronx
-- Van Nest Yard, 1601 Bronxdale Ave., Bronx

"I was a skilled tradesman, and I took a huge pay cut to come to this company for the first eight years because they have a defined income pension," said Con Ed worker Steve Brennan, who has two decades with the company. "None of us get paid a lot of money. Con Ed has a progressive income stage--people sign up for this company because of its structure and its pension. Now they're trying to take away the reason most people come here."

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THE STAKES are high for Con Ed workers. Local 1-2 members won a victory when the company caved and reinstated health care benefits on July 14, in response to a press conference the union planned to highlight the effects of the insurance cutoff on chronically ill workers.

Still, the workers are already feeling the pinch of being without an income. While locked-out workers qualify for unemployment, New York's maximum benefit of $405 per week for the highest earners is hardly a sustainable income in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Despite the financial pressure, however, workers say they need to hold out for as long as it takes to get a fair contract that leaves the pension system intact. As Denesh, a senior electrical technician who has been with Con Ed for nine years, said this was his first time ever being unemployed: "Of course I want to go back to work and get my life back, but getting a contract has to be the top priority."

Another worker, William Garcia, said, "I want to have a fair pension to retire on...If I get hired to work for a company, and they tell me I'm going to have a pension, I should be able to keep it. I think that's fair--I don't think anything else is fair."

Cutting pensions is an attack on all workers, but they will disproportionately affect Black workers who, because of racist hiring practices, often have less seniority on the job than their white counterparts. Women also have less seniority because if they take maternity leave or time off to stay at home with children, these years are deducted from their overall service time. The fight against the pension changes should include a discussion about challenging these instances of racism and sexism as well.

The stakes in this struggle are also high for New York City labor as a whole. If Con Ed can get away with crippling the union, it will be a green light to escalate the frontal attack on all workers in this city. In particular, pensions could become a thing of the past.

On the picket line, people draw comparisons between Con Ed's attack on the union here and the assault on union rights under Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin that sparked the uprising and Capitol occupation in February 2011. "This is New York's Madison," said one worker who has 30 years with the company. "They want to break the union." Labor lost that battle in Wisconsin--most of all because of the conservatism of union officials and Democratic Party leaders--but the massive protests showed the potential for building solidarity and united action in defense of labor rights.

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THE COMPARISONS to Wisconsin make sense--but not just because of the scale of Con Ed's attacks. The movement in Madison can be a precedent for a similar struggle in New York City, where supporters from every union and every neighborhood come together and take action--for example, by occupying Con Ed headquarters.

As William Garcia said: "I think people have realized that when you make bigger noise in a strike or protest, it works. Occupy Wall Street showed that...I think people are starting to understand that we have to help each other out--that divisiveness does not work, and there is strength in numbers."

This was an important lesson of the Sotheby's struggle right here in New York City. Art handlers at the famous auction house, members of Teamsters Local 814, finally won a contract last month after being locked out for 10 months. They won because of their activism and a collaborative solidarity built in connection with the Occupy movement.

With only 42 workers affected by the lockout, the struggle could have been isolated and marginalized. But hundreds of people who showed up to the picket line outside Sotheby's, bringing media attention and confidence to the fight of small workforce. And now, Sotheby's workers are going down to the Con Ed picket lines to share their experiences--including the importance of mass protest in forcing the employer's hand.

If Con Ed workers initiated a similar struggle, they could rely on a large number of supporters. Everyone in New York City who pays for electricity pays Con Ed--and at higher rates than anyone is satisfied with. There are actually more opportunities to win solidarity from Con Ed customers than in the Sotheby's struggle, where the customers were millionaires.

Some concrete ideas for a solidarity campaign came out at a meeting called by Local 1-2 on July 13. Despite being organized on less than 24 hours' notice, the meeting brought out Con Ed workers along with postal, transit and telephone workers, as well as teachers and members of the labor solidarity groups created by Occupy Wall Street. There was a shared sense that the fight for Con Ed workers is a fight for all working class people in the city.

Activists are hoping to push the UWUA and the Central Labor Council to organize a more aggressive public relations campaign against Con Ed. Other ideas for activism included making a call for customers to cancel auto-pay or to pay an incorrect amount on the balance of a bill--with the aim of putting more pressure on the work that managers and scabs are doing. Participants at the meeting also discussed getting more people signed up for the UWUA's text-alert system and also beefing up support at picket lines in order pressure other unions not to cross.

Linking the fight for a contract at Con Ed to the struggle against racism in New York could be a key element to broadening the struggle. The two-tier pension system will discriminate against Black workers, but more broadly, working class people of color are most likely to face interruptions to their electric service because the company is always more concerned with keeping wealthier, whiter neighborhoods without problems. These issues need to be front and center in a more aggressive campaign to win support for UWUA members.

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ULTIMATELY, AS Joe Seyfried, a second-generation Con Ed worker, said, "All the company cares about are its profits. The only place to get more is on the back of the union."

For the company to feel pressure to sign a fair contract, workers and their supporters will need to create some serious PR nightmares and build broad public support--but they will also need to impact Con Ed's bottom line. This raises the question of how to confront the scabs who are trying to keep Con Ed's operations running.

One strategy adopted during the month-long strike by Verizon workers last summer was for mobile pickets of Communications Workers of America members to follow scabs out in the field and try to stop work from taking place. This ought to be considered in the Con Ed fight.

For picket lines to be more than a symbolic show of union power, they need to be a barrier that prevents work from happening. But there have been debates on some days at the picket lines about how members should approach scabs. Some people think that it's not appropriate to yell at scabs because it sends the wrong message about the union's strategy. Others say the managers on the inside are on the same side as the workers and therefore should be treated in a friendly way.

It's important to talk through these debates and come to a clear picture of what the managers and scabs are doing: making it harder for the union to gain the leverage to win a contract.

Scabs are brought in to try to continue business as usual without union workers. If the company is successful in this, it won't feel compelled to make any concessions. Stopping work from happening is what will tie the hands of the company and force it to compromise when it doesn't want to.

This is where union workers have the most power--the company can't function without the work they do. This is especially true at Con Ed, where UWUA members do highly skilled and dangerous work, which scabs are now trying to perform without training or experience. Replacement workers need to be convinced not to do union work, or blocked from doing it. That's why picket lines, whether mobile or at a single location, need to be a serious barrier that gives people a reason for not crossing it.

For Local 1-2 members, as well as for unionists and supporters across the city, the question of what it will take to win a fair contract at Con Ed is crucial. The lessons and inspiration to be drawn from the struggles that have lost and those that have won--like Wisconsin and Sotheby's--can help provide some guidance.

As Denesh said, "We need to get more people from the union involved to help build a citywide and nationwide movement. This movement has to come from the workers." There is talk of stepping up activity in support of the strike, including a mass solidarity meeting that could bring locked out Con Ed workers together with others to discuss the struggle ahead.

On July 17, the UWUA will hold a mass rally, starting at Con Ed headquarters at 4:30 p.m. and continuing at Union Square. This is an important next step in broadening this struggle and pushing it forward.

Everyone in New York City who thinks that a living wage, a pension and power at the workplace should come before the profits of the 1 percent should get involved in supporting the Con Ed workers, who keep the lights on for more than 12 million people. "Whatever it takes" should guide the strategy in organizing against this union-busting attack--one that will that will affect all workers

Yoni Golijov, Danny Katch, Gary Lapon and Sherry Wolf contributed to this article.