National Grid shows its greed

July 25, 2018

Tristan Brosnan reports from Massachusetts on a lockout of union members by the utility company National Grid — and the solidarity that's building up behind workers.

FORBES MAGAZINE ranked National Grid, a UK-based utilities company with operations in the U.S., at 301 on its 2017 World’s Best Employers List, right behind McDonald’s and Hormel Foods.

This might seem like quite the accolade, but the reality is quite different for the roughly 1,200 National Grid workers in Massachusetts who are currently being locked out by management after contract negotiations stalled on June 24.

Members of United Steelworkers (USW) Locals 12012 and 12003 were fighting against management’s proposals to increase health care costs, reduce benefits for new hires and replace existing pension plans with 401(k) plans.

The company has been attempting to push through a two-tier system for new hires, similar to what has been done in automotive manufacturing. Veteran employees would continue to have a pension plan, but would face increased health care costs, while new hires would only be eligible for a 401(k).

The union refused to accept these changes — and National Grid retaliated by locking workers out of their jobs.

Locked-out National Grid workers and their supporters demonstrate in Boston
Locked-out National Grid workers and their supporters demonstrate in Boston (Tristan Brosnan | SW)

“They want to split the union,” said Arthur Flaherty, a National Grid worker who repairs trucks in Waltham, Massachusetts. “They want to have the haves and have-nots. They want different health care for the new hires.

“In the last contract, we gave up a lot. We’re fighting for the future of the workplace. If you have a two-tiered system, it just pits workers against each other.”

Another employee underlined what this fight was all about: “The company is strong-arming the union, cutting off our pay and benefits for our families. The two big issues are pensions for new hires...and they want to shift more health care costs from them to us. We’re out here fighting for the next guy walking in the door.”

IN ADDITION to barring workers from returning to their jobs and refusing to pay them, National Grid also terminated health insurance coverage for the 1,200 workers.

David Monahan, a service tech worker from Lowell, Massachusetts, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his bladder just before the lockout. He and his family are now scrambling to get health insurance that’s affordable and will cover his surgery, all while trying to survive with a loss of income.

Another National Grid worker, Brian Harvey, found out that his 21-month-old son had cancer on the same day that National Grid revoked his family’s health insurance.

How can National Grid claim to be one of the World’s Best Employers when it is denying adequate health care for workers and their families? As Local 12003 President Joe Kirylo put it, “How can you be so cruel?”

In order to keep profiting during the lockout, National Grid has hired scabs to replace the well-trained, unionized workforce.

Management referred to them in an e-mail to MassLive as “a mix of over 600 skilled contractors and nearly 700 National Grid management employees, including supervisors, experienced and qualified gas workers from New York and Rhode Island and employees who have been specifically trained for their contingency roles.”

But these “skilled contractors” are putting Massachusetts residents in danger. In an opinion piece in Commonwealth magazine, Joe Kirylo joined Local 12012 President John Buonopane in writing about about numerous health and safety violations carried out by poorly trained scabs.

For example, in Lowell, scabs were observed excavating within 200 feet of a high-pressure regulator pit without an on-site inspector. And in Dorchester, the company has brought in cots so managers can sleep on site because there aren’t enough qualified natural gas workers to safely run their facilities.

Additionally, in Everett, National Grid cut a hole through a fence in one of its facilities to open up a temporary back door to the Malden headquarters, so they can bypass union picket lines. They did so without notifying the city of Everett or taking out a permit.

Like much of the shoddy scab work, the backdoor truck entrance is a dangerous accident waiting to happen. It runs right over a 700-pound pressurized gas line. With a large enough truck and enough pressure, the gas line could fracture and cause an explosion.

Scabs, whether they be company managers or newly hired and untrained employees, put our communities at risk. The unionized members of USW know more about their work and safety regulations than management.

FORTUNATELY, SUPPORT for the locked-out workers has been growing. A number of towns, including Medford, Lowell, Haverhill and Braintree, have decided to put a temporary moratorium on all non-emergency gas work in an attempt to force National Grid back to the table.

“The only way to win is if we don’t let the scab workers work,” a locked-out worker said in an interview. “New work puts money in their pockets. No new work until you put the 1,200 workers back to work!”

On July 18, more than 1,000 workers in Locals 12012 and 12003 and their allies in the labor movement mobilized for a march and demonstration outside the Massachusetts State House as the lockout entered its third week.

There was significant solidarity from members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, Massachusetts Teachers Association and its progressive caucus Educators for a Democratic Union, UNITE HERE Local 26 and locals representing SEIU, AFSCME and IBEW. Additionally, members of the International Socialist Organization and Democratic Socialists of America mobilized to show solidarity.

This fight could be a long one. This is the second time National Grid has locked out its workers. The last lockout was in 1993 and lasted for six months. But despite the greed and intransigence of the company, locked-out workers are optimistic.

“I put money in my savings account for this,” said Arthur Flaherty. “I saw that the way the company was going, that’s what was going to happen. My father was locked out in 1993. They were trying to make changes to health care and job security.”

While National Grid may be an obscure utilities company to some, the reality is that it’s a highly profitable public company. It’s ranked in the top 300 largest public companies in the world, and its pre-tax profits are up 24 percent so far in 2018.

Now’s the time for the rest of organized labor to step up to the plate. Solidarity, struggle and strong picket lines — that’s what will force National Grid to concede.

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