Lawmakers on Beacon Hill are looking for ways to pressure gas company National Grid to end its lockout of about 1,200 workers. One bill would force the company to restore health insurance to the workers while they’re locked out.
In a statehouse committee hearing Tuesday, National Grid defended its move to cut off health insurance benefits to locked-out gas workers and bring in replacement workers. The labor dispute has now lasted nearly six months.
National Grid officials say the sticking points in the contract negotiations include health insurance for existing workers and pensions for new employees. The company says it needs the concessions to be more competitive in this state. With profits at 3 percent, Massachusetts is National Grid’s “lowest performing” division, officials told lawmakers yesterday.
"All of our costs are paid for by our customers, every penny is paid for by our customers," said Marcy Reed, the president of National Grid’s Massachusetts business. "Our customers shouldn’t have to pay the salaries and benefits of a group of workers who are not providing a service for our customers."
Lawmakers argued that Massachusetts residents are already picking up the tab, if locked out workers join the state sponsored health insurance plan. They urged Reed to restore benefits while the company negotiates a new labor contract.
Representative James O’ Day of Worcester sponsored one of the measures that would restore health insurance to locked-out workers and ban National Grid from raising rates during a lockout.
"There is currently no incentive for management to end the lockout, and that is precisely what this legislation aims to do," O’Day said.
Michelle Harvey, who is married to a locked-out National Grid worker, told lawmakers yesterday they lost their insurance just as their child was having a medical emergency.
"I hope that you pass this bill so they’re forced to correct their mistake," Harvey said. "Healthcare should not be a negotiating tool. We are not dollars. We are people. We are my baby. We are loved ones."
Some lawmakers also want to make gas utility workers essential employees who can’t strike or be locked out of work. National Grid officials say lawmakers are overstepping their authority by trying to intervene in a labor dispute, but lawmakers say it is their duty since National Grid operates a public gas utility and safety is at stake.
Legislators said they were concerned about safety and lost economic development since National Grid hasn’t been able to connect new lines.
"As for safety, I’m proud of the work that our replacement workers are doing," Reed said. "As for the work that you brought up, yes, we’ve done less work. We’ve done a lot less work."