National Grid gas workers who have been locked out since June are set to be back on the job later this month after their unions on Monday ratified a new agreement, and the company expects to resume non-emergency gas work next month.
The heads of United Steelworkers locals 12003 and 12012-04 last week applauded the tentative agreement and on Monday announced their union members had voted to ratify a new, six-year agreement replacing the contract that expired on June 24, 2018.
"It's a good deal for both sides, but it took an awful lot to get to this place," Marcy Reed, president of National Grid in Massachusetts, told reporters. "We know these past six months have been challenging for all of our employees and also our customers. We have a lot of hard work ahead to mend relationships with our employees, to address connection issues that have been delayed, to implement new contract terms, and of course all while continuing to serve our customers."
According to National Grid, the employees will return to work the week of Jan. 20 "after an onboarding process that factors in such details and logistics as licensing, system access and medical testing."
"We are very proud of our members who stood together over the past six months. National Grid's decision to lock out 1250 of its most experienced employees last June caused significant hardship for so many residents, businesses and communities through Massachusetts," John Buonopane, president of USW Local 12012, and Joe Kirylo, president of USW Local 12003, said in a statement. "Our first priority is the safety of our communities and we look forward to returning to our crucial work of providing the safe natural gas service the Commonwealth of Massachusetts deserves."
With the gas workers at risk of exhausting their unemployment benefits by mid-January as contract negotiations continued, Gov. Charlie Baker on Dec. 31 signed a new law calling for benefits for locked-out workers to be extended for 26 weeks or until a lockout has ended. Two days later, on Jan. 2, National Grid and the unions announced they had reached a tentative agreement, subject to ratification Monday.
"We've all been working for the lockout to end for a long time," Baker said Monday afternoon.
He said he and others in state government "would have loved to have seen it resolved a long time ago, because it's had real consequences for the people who were locked out and their families, as well as for a lot of businesses in Massachusetts that depended on National Grid to be able to do work that they couldn't do."
Asked what role the new law played in the two sides reaching agreement, Reed said it was "none whatsoever."
"We were always focused on getting to a fair deal, whether it was June, July, October or January, and so that had really nothing to do with when we ended," she said.
The new contract, according to the company, includes pension increases for current employees, wage increases and "improvements from the company's original offer to new hire benefits, such as retiree medical, sick leave, and life insurance." It defers full implementation of health insurance cost-sharing, "in-sources" work to union employees, and creates additional jobs dedicated to contractor and job oversight.
"While it was important for us to ensure comparable benefits across our employee base, we also wanted to ensure that all our union employees are fairly compensated with excellent benefits," Reed said.
Kirylo and Buonopane said the pact "safeguards the future workforce and includes a number of provisions that will enhance the safety of our communities -- including the creation of dozens of public-safety related jobs."
"More specifically, the agreement features new mark out, inspector positions and instrumentation and regulation jobs - all of which are vital to public safety. The agreement also includes significant sick time, compensation, and retiree health and life insurance protections for newly hired employees," they said.
Depending on weather and permitting, National Grid said it "should have the capacity to resume non-emergency work -- including some new services -- in early February," with gas service work prioritized based on greatest need.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey said in a statement that they were glad the union members would be able to return to work.
"While we are thankful for all of the hard work put into these negotiations, lockouts are unsafe, unfair, and should never be used as a negotiating tactic, damaging public trust and harming hard-working families," the senators said.