Massachusetts House leaders on Tuesday began pushing legislation that would create a new fund extending unemployment benefits for locked-out workers at the direct expense of their employer — the latest in the Legislature’s efforts to ramp up pressure on National Grid amid its labor dispute with 1,250 union employees.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said the House would take up the bill on Tuesday in an informal session.
The new legislation would create a separate fund for “involuntarily” locked-out workers to tap once they exhaust their regular unemployment benefits. The employer would cover both the costs of implementing the program as well as the benefits themselves, according to a copy of the legislation, and workers would receive the same weekly benefits they otherwise would get from unemployment law.
Any benefits from the program would end once the lockout is resolved, and they would not continue if workers decided to strike.
The bill does not specifically mention National Grid, but in a thinly veiled reference, it seeks to bar a company from passing the costs of the program to “ratepayers of an employer.”
Locked out since June, the United Steel Workers Locals 12012 and 12003 have said many of their members will burn through their unemployment benefits as early as Jan. 14.
In a statement, DeLeo criticized National Grid for using the lockout as a negotiating tactic amid what he called a “wholly avoidable business decision by a public utility.”
“Such reckless behavior by any large employer would be appalling, but it is even more egregious when undertaken by a public utility that has been granted a territorial monopoly by the Commonwealth,” DeLeo said. “When we grant a public utility, we expect that companies bear implicit responsibilities because of the special status conferred upon them.”
Union workers had said they planned to testify at a 1 p.m. hearing on separate legislation regarding health benefits.
DeLeo said Tuesday that leaving those workers without any income “is unconscionable.”
“The Commonwealth cannot sit idly by while a large, international conglomerate volitionally locks out employees in a transparent effort to enhance its leverage in a negotiation, while passing . . . on the cost for this misguided strategy to the taxpayers and ratepayers of the Commonwealth,” he said.
Governor Charlie Baker did not take a stance on the legislation Tuesday, but a spokesman said he’s repeatedly called for National Grid and the unions to reach a compromise. “The Baker-Polito Administration has facilitated discussions between National Grid and union leadership to encourage negotiations,” said spokesman Brendan Moss. He added that the administration has also imposed a moratorium on all National Grid work, except for emergency and compliance situations, pending a state review of of the company’s “safety practices.”
National Grid lashed back at the proposal Tuesday, and sought to cast blame on the unions for the enduring labor strife.
“The proposed bill is punitive, targeting National Grid for exercising its rights under federal labor law,” the company said in a statement. “If the unions were a willing partner at the bargaining table, we could reach an agreement before Christmas. The best way to ensure these employees get benefits is for them to reach agreement with the company for a fair and generous contract, which is what we continue to offer.”
National Grid said the two sides are scheduled to meet in another negotiating session on Friday. They met on Monday, after which the unions accused the company of a “continued refusal to compromise” while National Grid said the labor officials refused to budge from keeping the “current costly health insurance and retirement plan provision.”
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