The battle heats up at Con Ed

July 5, 2012

David Bliven reports from the picket lines on the lockout of Con Ed workers.

NEW YORK City's electricity provider Con Edison locked out 8,500 workers on July 1 after their union, Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 1-2, refused to buckle and accept company demands for concessions.

The stakes are high, not only for workers and the company, but all New York City residents. Con Ed imposed its lockout while the city was in the grips of a scorching heat wave, with the power system under pressure to keep up with growing demand.

But that didn't stop management from attacking union workers when they wouldn't cave--which shows that this fight is about Corporate America trying to strike a blow against labor, as one worker told Alternet: "A lot of greed, a lot of arrogance. Blame the unions, blame the workers, take their benefits away, and just keep increasing their bonuses."

One main issue in contract negotiations has been pensions. The company wants to switch from defined-benefit pensions to 401(k) plans for new hires and unvested employees. Management also wants to nearly double workers' contributions for health insurance to $133 a week for a family plan--with co-pays increasing from $28 to $40. This would basically wipe out the token raise of $1 an hour being offered.

Workers locked out by Con Ed picket the company
Workers locked out by Con Ed picket the company

The company also wants to change sick leave policy. As it is, workers are "allowed" three sick "frequencies" per year (a frequency is one to three days off in a row). After the third "frequency," they are written up. Another frequency results in suspension and denial of raises and promotions for one year.

The company wants to make that draconian policy even harsher. According to Mike, a Con Ed worker on the picket line this week, the company proposal would "reduce pay while on medical leave to 75 percent the first week, 65 percent after six weeks, 55 percent after 12 weeks and termination after 26 weeks."

THE UNION had threatened a strike when the current contract expired in the early morning hours of July 1, but Local 1-2 officials say they offered to keep members working under the terms of the old contract while talks continued. However, according to an In These Times report, Con Ed demanded that the union promise seven days' notice before declaring a strike. When Local 1-2 refused, the company initiated the lockout.

As of Sunday, the company said it had a workforce of 5,000 managers, retirees and replacement workers maintaining operations--a sign that it was prepared for a stoppage. On the picket line, workers said they believed Con Ed had brought in a new president, Craig Ivey, several years ago in order to "bust the union."

But now, unqualified people are doing very dangerous work, a risk to their own safety and that of the community. As Bruce Prescod, a 27-year veteran of Con Ed, said in an interview on the picket line:

Right now, there's a big danger with "stray voltage" at manholes and other locations throughout the city, which normally teams of workers would go around the city checking and fixing. Management simply doesn't have the resources to do this, so this aspect, along with others, is being neglected. Additionally, management is simply not qualified to do many of the jobs, so that--and the fact that most repairs being done now are dangerous patch jobs that will need to be corrected later--contributes to growing electrical danger.

Another worker who has been at Con Ed for 24 years added: "About 5,000 management are trying to take the place of 9,000 union workers--an impossible task, especially considering that the managers are mostly only college-trained, while those who used to be workers did hands-on work 15 or 20 years ago, so they don't have the requisite experience."

After the lockout began, the union made an immediate call for a show of force on the picket lines on Monday, July 2. Workers were spirited and angry as they stood outside Con Ed offices and facilities, yelling "Scab!" and worse as management came out of the building.

The picketers were joined by a contingent from the Communications Workers of America, which has been in a long-running battle with Verizon that included a strike late last summer.

At one picket line was a large group of nonunion office cleaners who worked for T&T Cleaning and Janitorial Services at Con Edison headquarters. Twelve of the workers were fired without notice on June 29, just prior to the lockout. The workers believe they were being punished for attempting to organize a union.

According to Armando, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, there have been efforts to organize the workers for the past three years, but each time the union makes progress, Con Edison changes contractors, defeating the organizing drive. The workers for T&T had been cleaning offices at Con Ed for about a year, with no benefits or sick leave. One worker, Doralisa Feliz, said she had to work a full day with a fever and bad cold because management told workers that anyone calling in sick without a doctor's note would no longer have a job with T&T.

Lorena, another of the 12 fired workers, explained how T&T had increased the workload through overtime. But without a union, the workers couldn't protest the speedup, even when new demands on workers led to injuries. Lorena herself was injured when a ceiling light fell on her.

Now these workers are joining the fight of other Con Edison workers in the hopes of regaining their jobs--and unionizing.

NATURALLY, MANAGEMENT is trying to portray locked-out workers as greedy. But Joe, a Con Ed worker for more than 20 years, pointed out that many union members at the company are highly skilled tradesmen. Even so, he said, "it takes eight years to get to the top pay scale at Con Ed, while with most other tradesmen [at other companies], it only takes five years."

But it's glaringly obvious where the real greed is at Con Ed--in the corporate boardroom.

Con Ed's CEO Kevin Burke has been getting richer and richer compensation packages in recent years. The New York Post reported his 2010 salary was $1.1 million--but on top of that, he raked in $9.2 million in benefits, bonuses and stock awards. All told, he got a 30 percent raise that year. As one locked-out worker put it, "They don't hesitate to give him a private jet to fly all over the world in, while letting us just get hurt on the job."

Safety was exactly the issue that another worker on the picket line, Ronald, wanted to talk about. He cited a recent example in which three workers were seriously injured on the job, suffering third-degree burns from an explosion. Instead of alerting other workers to what happened so they could take extra precautions, the company "kept it a secret," said Ronald. "They won't tell us who got hurt or how."

Another worker, James, agreed. He said he works "all day around high-voltage equipment. It's highly dangerous--[so dangerous that] they give you a lot of training and teach you how to be safe. Then, once you're on the job, they don't care about any of that. They just want you to get the job done, whatever it takes, whatever the danger."

Local 1-2 members say their refusal to accept concessions while Con Ed remains profitable isn't greedy at all. "This isn't about a pie in the sky," said one. "All we want is a fair wage." He went on to link the fight at Con Ed to other labor battles:

What we need is for every single union--communication workers, transit, everybody--to go out in unison until we get what we all need. Only then can we bring the city to its knees. Tell me one time in history where the lower classes got what they wanted by being polite and complacent. No, you have to stand together. Not just Con Ed, but all of Corporate America needs to learn a hard lesson: they can't operate without us.

Kyle Brown, Sean Larson and Hannah Marcerou contributed to this article.

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