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ConEdison Puts New York's Power at Risk During Heat Wave with Lockout of Workers

The utility company has locked out 8,500 workers, leaving a skeleton staff of untrained managers to run the city's power grid during a searing heat wave.

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But even if Gotham doesn’t completely short circuit, workers are inflamed by the company’s brazen dismissal of the union.

Fred, a 48 year-old mechanic at the East River station who attended Monday's demonstration, said he was working a night shift when the lockout was imposed, and was immediately ordered out of the building, making way for the managers to take over. The efficiency of the process seemed like part of a well-planned strategy.

“This is not just something they whipped up a couple weeks ago, when they knew the contract was coming up,” he said. “So, they see what's going on in the rest of the country, in the world. And they say we have to cut costs, to keep the stock profitable... They don't answer to us, they don't answer to the customers out on the street. They answer to the stockholders.”

The number of large labor clashes nationwide has ticked up since 2009. Last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “there were 19 major strikes and lockouts involving 1,000 or more workers and lasting at least one shift.” These actions stopped work for a total of more than 110,000 workers and cost about one million lost workdays. This was a marked increase from the previous year, which saw only eleven major work stoppages, impacting 45,000 workers, and just five major work stoppages in 2009. But statistically speaking, labor has overall grown less confrontational as the industrial workforce hollowed out since the Reagan Era; in the 1970s such work stoppages, including lockouts and strikes, regularly topped two hundred annually.

Sometimes a lockout can catalyze labor activism. When the defense industry giant Honeywell International locked out workers in Metropolis, Illinois in the summer of 2010, United Steelworkers Local 7-669 campaigned hard and held out for over a year, eventually wresting significant concessions from the company in their contract. But fundamentally, a lockout is an expression of corporate impunity. By paralyzing the workplace before employees can even start to mobilize for a strike, a company can instantly disempower the union and intimidate idled workers to buckle to the management's demands. As In These Times reported earlier this year, since returning to their jobs, Honeywell workers have reported ongoing workplace safety hazards and union-busting campaigns by management.

However the standoff in New York ends, the issue at stake in the ConEd negotiations is vital not just to the union but to all the communities their workers serve: whether working people can still have the kind of economic security that past generations of blue-collar New Yorkers came to expect from employers as part of a hard-fought social contract.

Standing outside the headquarters, a locked-out operations analyst in his early 30s remarked, “When they hired me, I looked at this company like this would be the last company... 'Cause looking around—they're all seniors, they're retiring. First job [is] the last job. But now, it's totally different. There's no more insurance anymore.”

Since he began at ConEd in the 1980s, Mario said it’s been “getting difficult to be a middle-class person in America. It looks like we're taking steps backwards instead of forwards [on] everything... that labor has fought for." Just a few blocks from the steamy power station where he should have been working toward his hard-earned retirement, he stood in the summer swelter at the barricade outside his employer’s offices: “I'm sure they're in there nice and cool right now.”

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor to In These Times and a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com and Pacifica’s WBAI. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

 
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