Labor unions may be taking a beating these days but they’re not going down without a fight and somebody is going to emerge bloodied.
The latest battlefield is right here in Massachusetts as National Grid’s lockout of some 1,200 union workers is in its third week with no immediate end in sight. The utility giant took the action after they said no progress was made on contract talks and officials said they feared either a strike, which had been authorized by union workers, or slowdowns, which would impede operations.
But union officials said they offered to continue working under the old contract, which contained a no-strike clause, but company officials took the drastic step of shutting them out. They have filed a labor complain over the action but it will take some time to sort out.
The key issues are increased health costs and eliminating the pension program by replacing it with 401(k) plans for new hires. National Grid says such moves are commonplace around the country but union officials say the inherent risks of the jobs require robust health and pension benefits.
Needless to say, it is becoming a PR fight with the unions upping the ante by offering heart-wrenching tales to the media of locked-out workers whose health insurance was canceled by National Grid. One out-of-work employee has surgery scheduled to remove a cancerous tumor on his liver while another is trying to cobble together money and coverage for a biopsy for her 9-year-old daughter who suffers from a rare lung disease. A worker in Springfield is scrambling to pay for the $8,300-a-month cost for the cancer drug his wife takes.
It’s highly unlikely reporters, as good as they are, found these folks on their own without some union help. It appears to be an intense campaign including radio and TV ads by the Steelworkers’ union to put the pressure on National Grid to come back to the table. The unions are pressing communities about the dangers of non-union workers working with gas. Several cities and towns have passed moratoriums on National Grid projects until the lockout is resolved.
Is it working? Not yet, with the next round of talks not slated until next week. But while unions are putting the pressure on National Grid, the company may be content to sit and wait. There’s an administration in Washington that’s not a friend to labor and the likelihood of a Labor Department decision against the utility is slim. Unions also recently got a gut punch from the Supreme Court in the Janus decision that ruled dues cannot be mandated from public sector employees, reducing labor’s influence in politics because they won’t have the money or the numbers to be as big a player.
Massachusetts likes to think of itself as a union-friendly state, with prevailing wage laws and an amenable Legislature. But with the growth of the technology sector, the number of union workers in the Bay State hovers around 12.4 percent, putting Massachusetts in the middle of the ranks of the country, far above South Dakota’s 3.9 percent membership but slightly more than half of New York’s union membership rate of 23.8 percent.
The National Grid workers will be back but there will be hard feelings. But, unfortunately for unions, fewer and fewer people care. And that indifference could be more harmful to them than any court decision.