ConEdison Puts New York's Power at Risk During Heat Wave with Lockout of Workers
Photo Credit: John Knefel
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As the summer heat seared New York City, tensions between the city's major electricity company and its union reached a boiling point over the weekend. By Monday, a meltdown in the talks over pensions and benefits left thousands of Consolidated Edison utility workers suddenly frozen out of their jobs. The lockout, a classic anti-union tactic, had paralyzed both the negotiations and the livelihoods of some 8500 union members. But that afternoon, scores of locked out workers assembled outside ConEd headquarters near Manhattan’s Union Square to show they would keep the heat on their boss.
Mario, a 55-year old worker at ConEd’s East River Generating Station, wasn’t shocked by the lockout. “It's corporate America. A lot of greed, a lot of arrogance,” he said. “Blame the unions, blame the workers, take their benefits away, and just keep increasing their bonuses."
As of Monday, ConEd was operating on an emergency staff, with about 5,000 “managers” replacing the locked-out workers. The company promised to maintain “essential operations,” though fears of electricity breakdowns loomed large as scorching heat blanketed ConEd's millions of customers across the five boroughs and Westchester. There were no catastrophes immediately following the lockout, according to local news reports, but outages hit some neighborhoods, and a substation fire in Brooklyn injured a manager.
Local outlets reported that talks with the union, Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2 stalled early Sunday morning, hitting a major impasse on the issue of pensions. The union said it was kicked out following a dispute over protecting workers' retirement and health benefits, though ConEd claimed it was open to extending the talks, as long as the union agreed not to strike without first giving the company “advance notice”. The union blasted the move to constrain its striking power, noting that this concession would undermine its leverage during negotiations.
Debbie Thomas could have used some advance notice. The customer service representative would normally have gone to work at the headquarters but found herself stuck outside on Monday, standing with her fellow union members at the demonstration and getting ready to tap temporary unemployment benefits as she waited for a contract deal.
"It was a shock to me,” she said. “ ‘Cause had I known we would've been going out I'd be saving my money. I really don't have no savings right now, and I never expected this to happen. But it happens."
Union and ConEd representatives arranged to meet again on Thursday, and there was talk of using a federal mediator to try to salvage the negotiations. But the promise of resumed talks didn’t address the simmering questions facing union workers as they challenged the city's power monopoly. Would New Yorkers turn their ire toward labor if power outages sprang up while services were suspended? Had the company now wrestled the union into a weaker bargaining position? ConEd's website has already rolled out anti-union propaganda by assuring customers that management would work to maintain services, while suggesting that the talks had been obstructed by union leaders' “refusal... to accept the company's offer to extend their members' contract for two weeks.” But for the union, the negotiations had disintegrated because their boss wasn't interested in a meaningful compromise, as ConEd kept rejecting basic demands for a fair deal to preserve pensions and benefits.
Union spokesperson John Melia voiced concern about the potential perils of using managers as emergency staff, reported the New York Daily News : “They have placed their customers and the public at great peril... These men and women don’t have the knowledge or the expertise or the capability to keep the system operating long term... These guys don’t know how to go down into flaming manholes.”