National Grid gas workers still locked out

MIKE LABELLA/Staff photo. A member of United Steelworkers 12012-04 watches as a private contractor hired by National Grid fills a hole that was dug in an effort to find a suspected natural gas leak near Haffner's Gas on Winter Street in Haverhill. 

HAVERHILL — With negotiations stalled between National Grid and gas workers, locked out members of United Steelworkers 12012-04 continue to show up at local sites where gas leaks have been reported.

About a dozen members of Local 12012-04 were in front of Haffner's Gas on Winter Street on Monday carrying signs and pointing out what they said were inefficient practices on the part of contract workers hired by National Grid to fix the leak.

"Why didn't you do this four hours ago," shouted union member Tim Pepin, who was questioning why nonunion workers were drilling an exploratory hole to detect an underground gas leak after they had dug a hole in the sidewalk without locating the leak.

Union member Dennis Brodie, a 42-year veteran with National Grid, said contract workers are taking longer to fix a problem than it would take union workers.

"They had as many as 10 guys here while we could have done it with a crew of three," Brodie said. "The public is noticing these guys more and more because these guys are taking longer to find and longer to fix leaks."

Three weeks ago, National Grid responded to a report of a gas leak on Winter Street near the intersection of Emerson Street. Members of Local 12012-04 stood by while nonunion workers searched for the leak.

Christine Milligan, spokesperson for National Grid Massachusetts, told The Eagle-Tribune that the workers are no less skilled than those who have been locked out.

"All who are executing gas safety and maintenance work through our work continuation plan meet all federal and state requirements and have demonstrated the competencies to work on the gas system," she said. "We have confidence in every employee and contractor working on our gas system.

"While we realize there is currently heightened public awareness around our safety policies right now, we do, in fact, address safety issues on any given day, all year round, across our jurisdictions with both union and nonunion employees. We regularly conduct appropriate reviews and investigations of our work sites and, if any safety concerns are noted or observed, we take prompt and appropriate action – just as we do with our unionized employees, and just as we would on any normal day."

Milligan added that National Grid has deployed a combination of skilled contractors and trained management staff, "including supervisors who typically oversee the union employees" to fulfill service requests while the union workers are locked out, but customers should expect delays in service for nonemergency requests.

Jeff Hamel of United Steelworkers Local 12012-04 said a total of about 1,250 National Grid gas workers, including members of Boston Local 12003 were locked out on June 25.

"Since then, every time we've met with the company's negotiating team we've asked two questions," Hamel said. "If they'll allow us to come back and work under the existing contracts until we can come to an agreement on a new contract, to which the answer has been no, and if there is movement on their side, and again the answer has been no."

He said National Grid, a British company, has not come back with any counteroffers since the lockout began. 

"We've had contract extensions before and continued to work as we bargained," Hamel said, adding that the contract dispute has to do with potential changes to health care benefits for existing employees and changes in benefits for new hires. He said his union is also seeking additional safety oversight at contractor work sites.

Brodie said the leak was reported on Sunday night and that the leak was investigated but repair work didn't begin until Monday morning. He said Haverhill firefighters showed up around 1 p.m. to allow workers into a nearby vacant mill building to search for a possible leak.  

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