National Grid lockout puts safety issue center stage

While detractors say communities should stay out of a private-sector contract squabble, a growing number of municipal leaders believe National Grid's months-long lockout of its unionized workforce jeopardizes public safety.

As of the last week of August, local officials in at least six area cities and towns are considering resolves and orders that impose moratoriums or other restrictions on non-emergency gas line work within their borders.

The issue stems from National Grid's decision to lockout more than 1,200 union workers from USW's Local 12003 and 120012 on June 25 after both sides failed to reach a new contract accord due to a stalemate over health insurance and pension benefits.

That action, which included the immediate suspension of workers' health care benefits, blocked the utility company's gas line repair crews and certified inspectors from reporting for duty at company work yards.

In the wake of the lockout, National Grid announced it would be relying upon private contractors and 600 trained and qualified management employees to make emergency repairs. But many are concerned about the competency of that replacement workforce.

"We're reticent to get involved in collective bargaining negotiations between a private entity and a union, but our role is to protect health and safety in the Town of Reading," said Select Board member Barry Berman during a gathering in Reading Town Hall last week.

So far, Stoneham, through a resolution adopted by its Board of Selectmen in early August, is the sole community within The Middlesex East coverage area to adopt the permitting halt, which has been requested of 50 other Massachusetts' communities.

However, with Stoneham's recent action matching the votes of about 20 other cities and towns — including communities like Cambridge, Somerville, Lowell, Medford, Melrose, Billerica, and Malden — the movement is quickly gaining traction.

In fact, over the past month, elected officials in Winchester and Reading indicated they too are likely to weigh in on the issue, though final votes have been stalled until September at the earliest.

In Reading, the delay is due to concerns about whether the Select Board has the authority to even sanction such a moratorium.

Winchester's Board of Selectmen, which met last week on its version of the work halt, agreed to postpone final action in order to consider the addition of an exemption clause - which would enable gas main work to be okayed by Town Administrator Richard Howard in limited circumstances.

Meanwhile, Woburn's City Council, as well as town leaders in Tewksbury and Wilmington, have agreed to consider a moratorium, but first want to solicit feedback from corporate staff at the gas distributor.

In each case where the temporary permitting freeze is being considered, USW representatives have accused National Grid of relying upon inexperienced office workers and professional managers with little field experience to plug gas leaks.

To back up those claims, those union representatives have posted dozens of videos on social medial sites that purport to document serious safety violations.

Many of those recordings show locked-out workers mocking and hurling insults at the replacement crews as they struggle to complete basic tasks, such as opening a manhole cover or operate standard industry power tools.

However, quite a few of of those videos purport to show concerning safety violations, such as crews digging holes near electricity lines instead of gas mains, improper equipment like gasoline-powered chainsaws being used in the same trench as a leaking gas main, and instances where workers are ignoring or failing to follow key safety protocols regarding work with pressured lines.

To date, USW officials have filed more than 50 complaints with state regulators from the Mass. Department of Public Utilities to back up those assertions.

According to USW Local 12012 member Joseph Cincotta, a Melrose resident who addressed both Stoneham's Board of Selectmen and Woburn's City Council earlier this month, that irregular labor force is already overwhelmed by emergency calls and shouldn't be trusted with gas line replacement projects or jobs that entail installing lines for new customers.

"There are some supervisors backfilling for us, but the majority of them have no hands-on field experience. These crews are basically people they've taken out of the office and given a quick training to," Cincotta told Stoneham officials at a meeting in early August.

"They have management supervisors filling in for us. Some of them don't have any experience with gas work at all," the USW representative commented at a Woburn City Council meeting a few weeks later. "Others, quick frankly, they just pulled out of the office. People from IT and human resources are out there trying to do our jobs."

Disputing those accusations, corporate officers at National Grid, through a series of prepared statements in response to those allegations, has called USW's claims "absurd".

In two such responses on the utility company's website, both of which were published in area newspapers in July, National Grid President Marcy Reed insists it would be counterintuitive for the business to field an unprepared replacement workforce during the contract stalemate.

"The differences between National Grid and these unions will be resolved at the bargaining table, not on a City Council floor. However, I am alway willing to speak with elected officials who genuinely seek to learn more about our continuation workforce," Reed wrote in an early July editorial in Lowell, after the City Council there enacted a permitting stop.

"There is nothing more important to National Grid than the safety of our customers, employees, and the general public," the National Grid president subsequently remarked in another written statement about a month later. "To think we would allow anything less is…would not only be irresponsible, but a terrible business decision for a regulated utility whose success is closely tied to its safety record."

National Grid, which in many instances has not been formally invited to address city and town officials considering moratoriums, has nonetheless been noticeably absent from virtually all of those public forums.

In light of the seriousness of the USW claims, officials in Woburn and Reading are insistent that the company be given an opportunity to respond.

"I'm weary of being used on contract negotiations. [This resolve] could be seen as a way of putting pressure on the company. I'd like to send this to committee and hear from [National Grid]," said Woburn Alderman at-large Michael Concannon after a hearing earlier this month.

However, for other town officials, the evidence on record is more than enough. Such was the case in Stoneham, where the Board of Selectmen, after hearing from USW officials, immediately acted to freeze permitting activity.

During the discussion in Stoneham Town Hall on the matter, Selectman Raymie Parker, who resides in a neighborhood that experienced a major gas leak last year, told her colleagues the potential risk to the public was too great.

"I live in that neighborhood that had the gas issue last year. It made me very nervous, but knowing there were trained professionals in that [hole] made me feel better," she said. "Even if this [permitting halt] upsets a resident or two or even a business, I think taking the safe route is prudent."

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