Far from a “very good” deal

August 13, 2012

Union workers at Consolidated Edison, the electricity provider for New York City and the surrounding region, won a tentative agreement after being locked out of their jobs for nearly four weeks starting at the beginning of August. Leaders of Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2 say the deal is a good one, though as Amy Muldoon reported in a SocialistWorker.org article, many members believe the local "accepted more concessions than...were necessary." Members will vote on the agreement through August 15.

In this comment sent to us, SocialistWorker.org reader David Bliven, the spouse of a Local 1-2 member, gives his opinion about the tentative deal--and what the union can do next.

ON AUGUST 8, members of Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union of America received a "detailed summary" of the proposed agreement with Con Ed. Members have until August 15 to vote the proposal up or down.

The plan is being pitched by the union leadership as "a very, very good Agreement for you and your families." Thus, as family to a Local 1-2 member, I thought I'd weigh in.

It should be said at the outset that members have only received a summary of the proposal. Apparently, to see the actual contract proposal, one needs to travel to union headquarters--as if viewing it is akin to seeing the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives (no word as to whether union leadership has the agreement under glass or not).

In any event, the contract proposes raises of 2 percent, 2.5 percent, 3 percent and 4 percent in the four years of the deal. The proposal also includes a "ratification bonus" of $1,200, along with a lump-sum bonus in 2013 of $600. The $1,200 signing bonus will be the effective equivalent of giving workers back pay for wages lost during the lockout.

ConEd workers on the picket lines
ConEd workers on the picket lines

That said, what happened to union leaders highlighting during the lockout the 20 percent raises for company executives? Once the "bonuses" are factored in, raises for Local 1-2 members average 3 percent a year. This will keep members at pace with the rate of inflation, but, importantly, do no more than that.

This begs the question how this deal could be "very, very good" for members and their families. With the beating the working class has taken during the last 30-40 years, we need wins on our side, not more loses or "break-evens."

Additionally, members will have their health insurance contribution go from approximately $47 weekly to $76 weekly--a staggering $329 per month deducted from net pay just to be covered by medical insurance.

Let's break this down further--I'll use my wife's income as an example. Her 3 percent raise will result in a net pay increase of about $800 for the entire year. But she will pay $29 a week extra for health care. This results in just over $1,500 extra for the year. Thus, so far, the "very, very good" deal for members and their families has resulted in a net loss of $700 for the year.

Next, we turn to the pension issue. The union emphasized that no current member will have their pension affected "through July 1, 2037." This provision is also quite troubling. The year 2037 will be a year when my wife will be planning to retire in the next year or two. The "very, very good" Agreement provides no detail on just what happens to her retirement come July 1, 2037.

Moreover, the agreement sells out new hires, switching them to a "cash balance" plan. An instructive guide on just what a "cash balance" plan is can be found on the U.S. Department of Labor's website. In a nutshell, it's a hybrid between a traditional defined-benefit pension and a 401k plan--but importantly, it strips new hires of a guaranteed, fixed monthly payment upon retirement.

Current employees are left to wonder whether the "cash balance" scheme will be imposed on them. The union assured members that by 2037, all current members will be vested in the pension anyway, and it "can't be taken away." If that's the case, then just what will the union and ConEd be discussing in 2037?

Another troubling provision allows the company to only "replace 75 percent of departing [union] employees"--meaning the company can apparently farm out up to 25 percent of union work to non-union contractors.

Whether the rank and file votes "yes" or "no" on the current proposal, some clear lessons should be drawn from this struggle.

First and foremost, the union, led by its rank and file, must prepare for the next contract now. One of the issues with the current situation was that it appeared the union leadership was unprepared when the lockout actually began. Members I spoke to seemed surprised that they were locked out and frustrated at the lack of information coming from their union. For instance, the union leadership began organizing its members for the contract struggle less than two months before the contract was to expire.

Moreover, when the lockout actually came, union leadership was slow to get mobile pickets up and running. They should have been in place right from the very beginning--along with the ability of members and supporters to report scab operations.

Furthermore, I heard a union official say at one of the pickets--around two weeks into the lockout--that only about 3,500 members out of over 8,000 had taken part in one or more pickets. The official expressed frustration that a majority of the rank and file was "sitting this one out." He also expressed bewilderment at how to get more people involved, freely admitting that the union had no way of actually enforcing its threat of fining members for failing to show up at pickets.

You heard right--union leaders were actually threatening its own members with fines, and then standing there dumbfounded when members called their bluff. This is simply not the way to build a strong union. Members, many of whom have grown up in an era where the labor movement is very weak, won't all of a sudden become raging unionists when union leadership shouts: "Okay, time to go out!"

Instead, if the union wants a radical contract, it must be radical itself. For rank-and-file members, this means organizing a caucus within the union. The caucus should promote labor education among the members, since without a knowledge of the history and the basics of trade unionism, workers won't know where labor has been, nor where it's going. Reading such books as Subterranean Fire, The Labor Wars, The Lean Years and The Turbulent Years serves as the compass on one's map--so you don't have to follow a union leader who boasts of being in the union for 30-plus years, but doesn't know why no one is showing up to the pickets.

A radical caucus could get the rank and file involved, both in agitation around workplace issues and in the community. Want to know where Local 1-2 members should be this fall? On Verizon's picket lines (if they go out), at police brutality demonstrations, defending homes against foreclosure or holding sit-ins at representatives' office if they refuse to raise taxes on the rich.

By connecting labor to all the issues facing the working class, workers will come to see that they aren't just union members, but leftists who are ready to fight in solidarity with any and all progressive movements. And when that contract comes back up in four years, it's a good bet those progressive movements will return the favor. But more importantly, the rank and file will be steeled in struggle and, as a result, more ready to fight longer and harder.

In the end, whether you're a member of Local 1-2 or a supporter--and whether the current contract agreement stands or falls--our collective chief task is to do everything we can to rebuild the left in this country.

Further Reading

From the archives