Benefits Bill for Locked-out Gas Workers Gains Steam

December 21, 2018 GMT

By Katie Lannan

State House News Service

BOSTON -- Both branches of the state Legislature have now approved bills that would provide unemployment benefits for the more than 1,200 National Grid gas workers who have been locked out of their jobs since June, but the bills differ in their approach.

To a standing ovation from dozens of gas workers packed into the gallery, the Senate on Thursday morning passed a bill that would allow locked out workers to receive unemployment benefits for an additional 26 weeks or until the lockout ends, whichever is shorter.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, whose chamber passed its lockout benefits bill earlier this month, said in a statement Thursday that the Democrat-controlled Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker must now work together to see some version of the bill become law.

“I am aware that implementation concerns have been raised about both versions of the bill and the House stands ready to work to address those issues,” DeLeo said. “Today, I am asking Governor Baker to submit specific feedback and suggested language to the House and Senate, and I am committed to reaching resolution on this issue. Further, the House is prepared to keep session open and hold additional sessions until we reach a resolution.”

Both branches kept their session open late into the day on Thursday, and the House plans to meet again on Friday while the Senate’s next session is scheduled for Monday.

A Baker spokeswoman said the administration would continue to work with lawmakers on the bill.

A key difference between the two pieces of legislation is how the unemployment benefits would be funded.

The House intended to have the utility responsible for locking out its workers -- in this case, National Grid, though the bill would also apply to potential future utility lockouts -- cover the costs of the extended benefits. Because of what DeLeo’s office has described as a drafting error, the bill (H 4988) as written would put all gas or electric utilities on the hook for the costs.

Under the Senate bill (S 2962), extended benefits would come from the state’s unemployment trust fund, which is paid into by most private, for-profit employers.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr described the Senate bill as “a limited, reasonable and fair approach” and “at best, a temporary measure.”

“It does not solve the problems of the ongoing lockout,” the Gloucester Republican said. “It is what is necessary to prevent economic harm and hardship for 1,250 workers and their families, but as we take this action, we know that the only long-term, sustainable and proper solution to the issues that divide National Grid and its employees is good-faith, honest, intense and sustained negotiations.”

Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, also spoke in support of the bill, thanking Senate President Karen Spilka for working to make sure the Senate addresses the issue in a way “that will withstand any challenges as we move forward.”

Pointing to the September gas fires in the Merrimack Valley that left one person dead, Pacheco said natural gas is an industry that affects public safety and that lawmakers should also look for broader action they can take in this arena in the future.

“We need to make sure that we come up with another strategy next year, even if this is resolved, to come up with a strategy so that we will never again be in this situation,” he said.

The Associated Industries of Massachusetts wrote to lawmakers on Thursday saying it is opposed to the Senate bill “out of a concern for the integrity for the UI system.” The group said the bill could slow negotiations and “set an unwise precedent” of legislators getting involved in labor disputes, as well as expanding the scope of the state’s unemployment insurance system.

A National Grid spokeswoman said the legislation being considered “would upset the balance of collective bargaining for all employers in the commonwealth.”

The National Grid spokeswoman, Danielle Williamson, said the utility had planned to present a revised contract offer on Friday and encountered “a disappointing decrease in the level of union engagement to reach an agreement at the bargaining table” during the day on Thursday.

“Our actions have consistently been centered on reaching a deal at the table, where the focus of all parties should be,” she said. “We, too, want to ensure our employees have access to good benefits: specifically, in the form of the competitive wages, job security, and market-leading health insurance we offer as an employer. If the unions re-engage with us at the table, we are confident we can reach a deal that satisfies all parties and gets our employees back to work as soon as possible.”

John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, heads of the United Steelworkers locals that are locked out, said in a statement they “appreciate the progress that was made by the House and Senate today to advance the unemployment insurance extension for workers who have been unfairly locked out by National Grid.”

“This bill provides a critical economic lifeline for our workers during this very difficult time. We strongly urge the Governor and Legislature to continue work on this issue tomorrow as our members hope for a resolution,” the union statement said.

The approach the Senate opted for is similar to a bill (S 1028) Sen. Mark Montigny filed in January 2017.

“Using a lockout to essentially starve workers into submission is an unconscionable and grossly unfair tactic,” Montigny said in a statement. “Hardworking families have every right to fair contract negotiations and this legislation will help level the playing field by providing extended benefits to employees while a lock out persists.”

Spilka, in a statement earlier Thursday, said senators believe their bill “is practical, feasible, and able to be implemented quickly, so that these families incur no break in unemployment benefits.”

Spilka, DeLeo and Baker have all called for the lockout to end and have urged National Grid and the unions to continue negotiating.

Baker on Wednesday said he has been “back and forth with the Legislature on this quite a bit,” and that whatever legislation comes out of the process “needs to be something that can be implemented, can work, and can stand up within the framework of state and federal law, which is complicated in this space.”

He said the state stepping into a labor dispute would be “an unusual precedent,” but said that National Grid has a responsibility, under its state-issued franchise, to serve its customers in exchange for the rate of return the multi-national utility company is allowed to make.

“And I don’t think it would be fair, given all of those facts, for us to not take into consideration those 1,200 locked out individuals and their families, and to work to try to make sure that they don’t end up on the wrong end of this dispute,” he said. “We are not telling people what to do, but if they don’t fix this, and resolve this, then we’re gonna make sure we come up with some means or mechanism that makes it possible for those folks to continue to be able to pay their bills.”