Unions representing 1,250 locked out gas worked have tentatively scheduled their next contract talks with National Grid for Wednesday, the day before Gov. Charlie Baker's deadline to act on locked out worker benefit legislation.
Baker administration officials say they have until Thursday, Jan. 3 to act on a bill (H 4988) enacted by lawmakers on Christmas Eve that would extend unemployment benefits for locked out workers for 26 weeks, or until the lockout has ended. Workers locked out since June 25 are due to exhaust their unemployment benefits in mid-January.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr has described it as "sensitive" legislation, and labor and business interests are closing monitoring it. Lawmakers considered plans that would have required any employer who locked out its workers to pay for extended benefits, but ultimately agreed instead on legislation requiring extended benefit costs to be covered by all employers who pay into the unemployment insurance system.
"Governor Baker is encouraged that both sides have held a series of productive meetings and urges them to reach an agreement as soon as possible so people can get back to work," Baker spokesman Brendan Moss told the News Service on Saturday.
National Grid and United Steelworkers Locals 12003 and 12012 on Dec. 21 announced it was their "shared intent" to agree on a new contract by Friday, Dec. 28, but Friday's deadline passed without a deal despite hours of private talks.
"After days of lengthy, productive bargaining sessions, National Grid and United Steelworkers Locals 12003 and 12012-04 negotiated all day and late into the night Friday," the two sides said in a joint statement released at 12:41 a.m. Saturday.
The company presented a revised offer at 11:30 p.m. Friday. "Given the lateness of the hour, the parties broke for the evening and have agreed to schedule meetings for the unions to respond formally to the company's offer," the statement said.
National Grid has been relying on replacement workers since the lockout began 188 days ago. The locked out workers, in addition to describing their struggles after losing paychecks and company-sponsored health insurance, have registered many safety complaints and asserted that the utility is unwisely depending on less experience workers.
National Grid says the two unions have refused to accept contracts accepted by other utility workers; the unions have been unwilling to retreat on pension benefits for new hires.
Union officials urged Baker to sign the bill on Christmas Eve, the day lawmakers rushed it to his desk. The governor, whose office worked with legislators on the bill's drafting, has so far not acted on the legislation while the company and the union continue their talks.
Baker could sign or veto the bill. With the New Year's Day holiday Tuesday and a new legislative session scheduled to start on Wednesday, it would appear that Monday, when both branches plan sessions, would be the last day for the governor to offer any amendment to the bill.
The unions, in their statement on Saturday, again urged Baker to sign the bill, saying it "preserves a critical lifeline for workers who have had their paychecks and health insurance ripped away by National Grid for more than six months."
"We are reviewing National Grid's latest contract offer and have tentatively scheduled the next negotiating session for Wednesday," John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, presidents of USW Locals 12012 and 12003, said Saturday. "While we continue to bargain in good faith, we have not yet reached an agreement and issues remain."
Neither the unions nor the company identified the issues that remain, and both sides said they would not comment beyond their brief statement.
As the lockout bill was taking shape, Baker said the legislation "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." The state stepping into a labor dispute would be "an unusual precedent," he said, but 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," Baker has 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."