Down in the Back Bay’s Park Plaza, hundreds of National Grid gas workers – now locked out of work for 11 weeks – took center stage on what many said was the truest example of what Labor Day should actually mean.
The politics of the matter shone through clearly on Monday morning during the rally in the street with the state’s political elite, but another piece of the puzzle is the day-to-day reality of having lost health insurance, paychecks and having to stage labor’s most ardent fight of the past decade.
For Everett’s Rocky Leo, who appeared with about a dozen locked-out Chelsea workers recently at a Chelsea City Council meeting, the lockout has a human angle – and standing tall in the Back Bay on Monday, he said that is exactly what the company is trying to exploit.
“They’re banking on us not getting by – we workers going under and losing our health care and defaulting on our mortgages so we have to get in,” he said. “It’s a struggle. It’s been 11 weeks since we were locked out. It’s really hard on many of us and that’s their strategy. They figure we’ll give in.
“Five days in they took our health care away,” he continued. “We had a guy who had just had his leg amputated, and people with diabetes who needed care and children who are being treated for cancer. That’s what we have here.”
The lock out started earlier this summer during contract negotiations with two unions in the National Grid gas operations division. The unions are represented by the United Steelworkers and talks have been ongoing, but nothing has been fruitful and labor leaders seemingly – on Labor Day – had seen enough.
“This is unacceptable on Labor Day and any day,” said state AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman. “The fight you’ve been waging the last three months is the most important fight you’ll ever have. Brothers and sisters, you are standing up to a corporate environment that has been scraping away for the last 20 years at our health care and pensions. Where are the elected officials asking National Grid to step up to the table and negotiate and get an agreement? Public safety should be first.”
Joe Buonopane, a president of one of the locked out unions, said on Monday that he wanted Governor Baker to stand up for the workers.
“Gov. Baker hasn’t said a word about National Grid workers being locked out for 11 weeks,” he said. “National Grid is a foreign company, based in the United Kingdom. We are Massachusetts workers locked out of our jobs and Gov. Baker hasn’t said (anything) about it. That shouldn’t happen in Massachusetts.”
On Sept. 4, National Grid and the two unions were to come back to the bargaining table. The results of those meetings were not reported by press time, but National Grid said they wanted to resolve the lock out.
“To end the lockout, which is a goal we share with our union employees, we need to have serious, productive conversations about reaching an agreement,” read a statement by National Grid sent to the Independent on Tuesday, Sept. 4. “Since June 25, National Grid has communicated to the unions that we remain willing to meet seven days a week to reach an agreement on all outstanding issues. Through a federal mediator, they have so far provided eight dates for meetings that have occurred and we are meeting with them again today, September 4.”
National Grid said they wanted to have a fair contract, but that also meant being responsible to the ratepayers. They said what the union characterize as a drive for company profits at employee expense is actually an effort to preserve reasonable rates for customers in Chelsea and beyond.
National Grid said the major sticking point is the company’s proposed benefit package that includes a new defined contribution 401(k) retirement plan. That new plan would apply only to new employees hired on or after June 25, 2018.
National Grid said they had negotiated away from pension plans to 401(k) plans with at least 16 other unions representing 84 percent of the company’s employees. National Grid also said the package is consistent with proposals that the Steelworkers have accepted in Massachusetts with all other public utilities.
National Grid said it doesn’t believe customers should have to pay for outdated benefits when most of those customers don’t enjoy such benefits themselves.
Leo said the idea is to preserve what they have and have had for years. He stressed that the workers only want the same thing they’ve always had.
“It’s frustrating because we’re not asking for everything and anything,” he said. “We just want what we have. We have completed more work than we have been asked to do and they’re profits are up. We exceeded 20 to 50 percent of our work in all categories. We’re doing more than what we are asked and they are profiting, so it’s hard to see why we have to make concessions. There’s no bargaining or discussion. It’s concession or nothing. It’s like talking to a 4-year-old and when they ask why, you only get ‘because.’”