National Grid, union say deal by Friday is "shared intent"

The calendar for the next two weeks is creating some interesting interplay between a benefit bill for locked-out workers, Christmas and the end of the 2017-2018 session, and contract talks between National Grid and its 1,200 locked-out natural gas workers.

Lawmakers on Friday agreed to the details of a bill extending unemployment benefits for locked-out workers and it appears they may take enactment votes to send that bill to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk on Monday, Christmas Eve.

Meantime, National Grid has been saying for days that it hoped to strike a deal with two employee unions by Christmas. However, a company spokeswoman on Saturday confirmed to the News Service that after seven consecutive weekdays of bargaining, the next session won't be held until Wednesday, Dec. 26.

And in another new wrinkle, the unions and the company issued a rare joint statement Friday night that suggested some optimism about a potential deal and markedly contrasted with the snippy statements that both sides have regularly issued after unsuccessful talks.

"At the request of the Unions, the Company refrained from making a new contract offer on December 21, 2018 in order to continue bargaining in an effort to reach an overall Agreement," said the statement, released at 7:45 p.m. Friday. "The Company and the Unions have agreed to a firm schedule to meet and bargain with the shared intent to reach an Agreement by December 28, 2018."

With concerns raised over possibly setting a precedent of intervening in a private labor dispute, lawmakers and Baker have not exactly rushed into passing a lockout benefit bill, instead repeatedly urging the parties in the labor dispute, which escalated when National Grid locked out its workers in late June, to settle their differences.

In the past three weeks, however, Beacon Hill has stepped up work on legislation, with cooperation from the Baker administration, after the unions noted unemployment benefits are due to expire in mid-January.

In a statement Friday night, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the House passed its lockout bill three weeks ago because workers were "facing the prospects of losing their UI benefits on the eve of Christmas." A DeLeo spokesman did not respond when asked about the conflict around the timing of expiring benefits, and a union representative confirmed Saturday that benefits are not due to expire until mid-January.

One possibility is for Baker to wait and see whether National Grid and the two unions follow through on their new "shared intent" of striking a contract agreement by Friday before deciding how he'll act on the bill, which is advancing as the session comes to a close with a new session starting on Jan. 2.

The unions representing the locked-out workers have a different idea.

"It would be especially meaningful for final legislation to be enacted and signed on Monday before the holiday," John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, presidents of Locals 12012 and 12003, said Friday night. They've described the bill as a "critical economic lifeline for our workers during this very difficult time."

In his statement Friday, DeLeo said the House agreed to the Senate's approach on the lockout bill "despite concerns that it unduly impacts businesses which — by no fault of their own — will have to subsidize the cost of another company's strategic decision and that those costs can be passed along to taxpayers."

The House intended, with its initial bill, to force National Grid to cover the costs of extended benefit, but due to an error instead passed a bill requiring all utilities to cover those costs.

DeLeo also indicated Friday night that lockouts will be a continuing concern for Beacon Hill lawmakers during the 2019-2020 session.

"Next session, the House will continue to explore solutions to ensure that our social safety net is not being leveraged as part of a private company's negotiation strategy; much less a large, publicly traded multi-national conglomerate that has been granted a monopoly by the Commonwealth," DeLeo said.

On Thursday, John Regan, a senior executive at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a trade group representing big employers, said its opposition to the current lockout benefit bill stems from concern over the "integrity" of the overall unemployment insurance system.

"AIM believes that this legislation, or bills targeting a specific labor dispute, would both slow negotiations and set an unwise precedent of the General Court involving itself in these matters," Regan said. "Additionally, AIM is concerned about the potential for this legislation to expand the scope of the unemployment insurance system, which was never intended to be used as a tool to resolve labor disputes."

Regan said "steps taken by the General Court to intervene in private sector labor disputes are counterproductive, setting a precedent that both sides will regret."

Chris Carlozzi, state director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said, "The Legislature intervening in a private labor dispute not only sets a dangerous precedent, but now may add cost for all Massachusetts employers. Massachusetts small businesses already pay some of the highest unemployment insurance taxes in the nation and this legislation risks straining the state's UI system."

National Grid spokeswoman Danielle Williamson said Thursday, as the Senate was passing its lockout bill, that the legislation "would upset the balance of collective bargaining for all employers in the commonwealth."

Williamson said the utility had planned to present a revised contract offer on Friday and encountered "a disappointing decrease in the level of union engagement to reach an agreement at the bargaining table" during the day on Thursday.

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