Locked-out gas workers keep pressure on at job sites

AMANDA SABGA/Staff photo Contract crews work on a gas leak on Winter Street near White Street in Haverhill. Locked out National Grid union workers look on. 

HAVERHILL — This city joined several others in the commonwealth Tuesday in siding with the National Grid gas workers when the City Council voted to impose a temporary moratorium on all routine, non-emergency gas projects on public property as long as the lockout lasts. 

The council voted 8-0-1, with Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua abstaining, not to support any new gas project the company seeks council approval for until the workers have been allowed back on the job. 

Gas employees of the utility giant have been forced off the job for more than two weeks, since contract negotiations between the company and unions stalled in late June. Effective July 1, the company announced it was eliminating health benefits for all gas employees. 

The lockout has left employees scrambling, and forced National Grid to bring in contractors who are unfamiliar with gas line work to take the union employees' place. Keith Rice, a union representative with United Steelworkers local 12012-4, appealed to Haverhill's City Council Tuesday to "join with a growing list of other communities" in passing the moratorium. 

"We do not think this is unreasonable given the importance of public safety and efficiency," Rice told the councilors. "Our belief is while the employees who normally do this work are locked out, there is a large potential for problems." 

With the exception of Bevilacqua, who abstained from the vote because National Grid is a part of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce he runs, all the councilors expressed enthusiastic support for the union workers and described National Grid's lockout as "rotten," "pathetic" and "reprehensible."

Other Massachusetts cities including Lowell and Braintree have passed similar resolutions already. Tuesday night, George Perry, a representative of another local union, requested that Methuen city councilors consider the same moratorium, though the council did not take a vote on the matter.

In addition to the moratorium, Councilor Michael McGonagle suggested the councilors each individually sign a resolution and send it to "the appropriate parties," including National Grid and the state agency that regulates the company, the Department of Public Utilities. 

"I happened to catch on the news tonight briefly ... that National Grid made $9.1 billion in profit last year," said Councilor Thomas Sullivan. "That's a lot of money, and I think not only do you guys deserve a raise that's fair and equitable, also I think the residents and customers deserve ... a rate cut."

"It seems incredible that they can be regulated so heavily and still have this amount of power and strength to do what they're doing to you," he added. 

Mayor James Fiorentini voiced his support for the workers, noting that he's been out on their picketing line in Haverhill three times. 

"It's outrageous and I stand with them," Fiorentini said. 

Rice said he and his fellow union members were "very happy" with the council's "enthusiastic" response, calling the councilors "reasonable."

Rice cited what he considered unsafe work practices that are in place while the gas workers are off the job, including that inspectors who normally oversee leak sites to "verify procedures are being followed" are not on the job. The inexperienced contract workers also require more manpower, take longer to pinpoint a leak, and are digging more holes than necessary in city roads, according to Rice. 

"It's been very scary and frustrating at times, and yet other times you feel as though you're fighting for something that you believe in and that makes fighting for it easier and worthwhile and more rewarding," Rice said. "Nights like tonight can kind of lift you up when you have down times, when you're thinking about not getting a paycheck or not having your healthcare."

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