National Grid lockout ends after almost seven months

Chris Triunfo, city editor

Unionized National Grid gas workers are set to get back to work next week following a nearly seven-month-long lockout. After voting overwhelmingly to approve a new contract Jan. 7, the lockout that left 1,250 workers without a job and insurance came to an end, and the company expects to resume non-emergency gas work next month.

The heads of United Steelworkers Locals 12003 and 12012-04, which represent the locked out employees, applauded the new agreement, which will last for over five years, and feature compromises from both sides.

“We did something unprecedented,” said John Buonopane, the president of Local 12012. “We stood up to a multinational, multibillion-dollar corporation that has more money than a lot of countries in the world. While we had to compromise, we did it on our terms.”

The contract will preserve retiree health benefits, life insurance and 26 weeks of sick time, all things that National Grid planned to eliminate for new hires before the lockout began. New hires to the company will also get a retirement plan that includes a 401(k) plan with a company match, but will not have pensions, which current workers have.

Wages will also rise 18 to 22 percent by the time the contract is up, and pension contributions for current employees will increase. The contract also approves new positions in safety oversight and returns outsourced jobs to union employees.

“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 during a press conference. “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.”

Corey Dockser
After failing to agree on a contract in June of 2018, 1,250 National Grid employees from two steelworker unions were put out of work by the company for nearly seven months.

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.”

With the gas workers at risk of exhausting their unemployment benefits by mid-January as contract negotiations continued, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new law Dec. 31 calling for benefits for the locked-out workers to be extended for 26 weeks or until a lockout had ended. Two days later, on Jan. 2, National Grid and the unions announced they had reached a tentative agreement.

“We’ve all been working for the lockout to end for a long time,” Baker said during a press conference. “I 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.”

When asked what role the new law played in the two sides reaching an 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,” Reed said.

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.

For the last six months, the 1,250 locked-out workers were living day by day.

Paychecks stopped coming in, and unemployment benefits only covered about half of their base salary. Promptly after the lockout began in June, National Grid cut off their health insurance, prompting some to put off doctor visits and one amputee to delay purchasing a prosthetic leg.

Countless protests were held, along with days spent lobbying state lawmakers to act.

National Grid serves 700,000 gas customers in 85 communities across eastern Massachusetts. According to NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, it will take two years for National Grid to catch up on all the work it missed due to the lockout.