On the Picket Line: The ConEd Lockout in New York

On the Picket Line: The ConEd Lockout in New York

An account of New York City electrical workers who've been on the picket since being locked-out earlier this week.

Having been in the States for six weeks now, I'm glad to report I've just come back from my first picket line. Coming into New York, I hooked-up with a long-time Wobbly friend who promised me not only a bar where each beer comes with a whole pizza, but the chance to attend the picket line of 8500 locked-out electrical workers. I was not going to pass up either.

Arriving at the picket line—located just outside Union Square in Manhattan—both sides of the street were lined with dozens of workers and supporters. Although the picket was overwhelmingly friendly, scabs and managers were routinely booed. Upon our arrival, the NYPD was busy reprimanding a group of workers for having the audacity to hang a banner from a tree and a lamp post. One of the more vocal workers—the same one we'd later speak to and who provided the majority of quotes in this article—was busy shouting at cops. “The first amendment doesn't apply to workers! This is what freedom of speech looks like for labor!”

We soon struck up a conversation and he was glad to discuss the situation. The reasons behind the dispute will be all too familiar to anyone who's seen a management assault on collectively bargained working conditions. First, management wants to increase employee health care costs. “We already pay 20% and if they had their way, we'd pay fifty.”

Second, management wants to scrap the pension scheme. As opposed to monthly payments in retirement, workers were to be told “here's a hundred or a hundred and fifty grand, good luck living for the next thirty years...”

Finally, management is seeking to introduce a two-tier workforce into the next contract. New hires would have a lower pay scale, less opportunity to progress within it, and lower retirement benefits. According to our worker-friend, “What sort of union could call itself a union that would allow that to happen?” I explained that two of us were members of UNISON and that only having two tiers would be quite an improvement.

All of concessions demanded by management, of course, were in contrast to this year's massive raises for the CEO and board.

When the union refused management’s offers, ConEd locked-out its entire workforce, bringing in management scabs to keep production running. This meant that when scabs crossed the line, it was personal. Bosses were called out on a first name basis and berated as they passed.

Beyond the monetary issues, safety seemed to be a major concern. As skilled workers, many of them stay in the job for decades. The good pay and benefits attract a long-term, stable workforce capable of protecting themselves and their co-workers in what can be a dangerous job. The pay and conditions are directly tied to a safe workplace with a strong union presence that ensures workers are properly trained. In the event of health and safety concerns, workers don't just move on to another lousy job. Instead, workers have recourse to ensure working conditions achieve a basic level of safety. This could all be lost if management succeeds in gutting the new contract.

The workers' trade union, for what it's worth, seems to be supportive of the struggle, providing placards and arranging rallies. However, the worker we spoke to was already critical of the federal mediation that would be beginning in the next couple of days. Having been called in by the union, the worker expressed his dismay that this “government has been bought” and that it couldn't be expected to take the union's side. Instead, he lamented, “What happened to city-wide strikes?” and spoke of the power of all workers to down tools and shut down the city.

The workers in this situation have another potentially very powerful advantage, namely their prominent role in the economy of New York City. ConEd provides the overwhelming majority of the electricity for the city and as the union t-shirts proclaimed, “If we go out, New York goes out”. This potential advantage, however, cuts both ways. Invoking the infamous PATCO strike of 1981, workers expressed their fear of government injunctions ruling them back to work and breaking the strike if it remains isolated in only one industry and only one workplace.

On the picket line, the workers that we spoke to seemed quite aware of the significance of the dispute. Describing management's attack as a “race to the bottom”, they expressed a fear of being turned into unskilled laborers making $7.25 an hour. When asked if workers who hadn't made it to the picket line were prepared for a long struggle, possibly dragging into weeks and even months, we were told “they have to. This is a fight for their jobs and their livelihoods. They don't have a choice.” In the mean time, workers plan to continue with their round-the-clock 24-hour pickets.

Comments

petey
Jul 4 2012 21:32

"ConEd provides the overwhelming majority of the electricity for the city and as the union t-shirts proclaimed, “If we go out, New York goes out”. "

they might want to use this carefully, because Con Ed did go out for a week not too long ago (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Queens_blackout). criticism was correctly directed at mgt, but it was pretty ugly and the experience isn't fogotten. (i remember driving through the area at the time, everything was blacked out as far as the eye could see.)

i did hear the union rep make a big issue of executive compensation (http://conedripoff.com/power-of-green.html) and in the current environment this could be a winner with the public, which so far as i can judge is sympathetic to the workers.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 5 2012 23:44

Thanks for that Petey. I know there's a few other New Yawkahs dotting around libcom, I'd be curious if anyone else has been down to the picket line or has any thoughts on the dispute.

klas batalo
Jul 6 2012 01:20

thanks for this Chilli

wojtek
Jul 6 2012 19:08
orkhis
Jul 6 2012 21:14

Con Ed: Utility moves to order union to cease demonstrations:

http://t.co/zoPKkIUa

Chilli Sauce
Jul 10 2012 02:12

Company's dropped health coverage for the locked out workers:

http://m.nbcnewyork.com/nbcnewyork/pm_107633/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=0oThzOLY

syndicalist
Jul 30 2012 14:36

From the WSWS site (link at end of article). As seems to be the case now, new hires will be without the old defined pension benefits. In the 1980s and 1990swe fought hard against two tiers
on wages and benes. The 2000s seem to be the decade of reduced pay scales, reduced pensions for new hires....if you get hired at all.

Well, it'd be preaching to the converted here to say what is needed, so....

Union accepts major concessions according to leaked summary of Con Ed agreement
By Philip Guelpa
30 July 2012

An unofficial summary of the terms of the tentative contract agreement between Consolidated Edison and the UWUA Local 1-2 appeared over the weekend.

The agreement was reached following a nearly four-week lockout of over 8,000 workers by the company. The unofficial summary indicates that the union has agreed to significant concessions. The official contract terms are expected to be released by the union either Monday or Tuesday.

The key changes, as outlined in the unofficial summary, appear to be as follows.

* New hires will be cut out of the existing pension system. Presumably, though this is not stated in what is so far available, they will be offered a “cash balance” (i.e. 401k-like) pension plan. Such schemes are extremely vulnerable to market fluctuations.

* The company is permitted to fill 25 percent of vacant positions with non-union personnel.

* Medical insurance payments will increase by approximately 20 percent for families over the life of the four-year contract.

* The cost of co-pays for prescriptions will also increase.

* Wages will increase between 1.5 and 2.5 percent annually over the four-year contract, plus the possibility of a 0.5 percent “merit pay” increase each year. There will be a $1,200 bonus the first year and $600 the second.

The proposed wage increases are unlikely to exceed inflation, meaning that real wages will fall. Over the last two years the monthly US inflation rate (annualized) has ranged between 1.5 and nearly 4 percent. By contrast with the current proposal, after a nine-week strike in 1983 the workers won wage increases of 14.5 percent over two years, as well as improved fringe benefits. In the 2008 contract, wages were increased 2 percent during the first year, then 3.5 percent in each of the next three years.

For the company, moreover, the nominal wage increases are balanced by shifting more of the burden of medical care onto the worker.

At the same time as workers are losing ground, Con Ed is reaping huge profits, $1 billion last year and a total of $5.9 billion since 2008. The current proposed contract seeks to extract even more profit from the workforce by cutting the company’s labor costs, especially with respect to pensions and health care.

The proposed contract provision that stipulates that one quarter of new hires can be non-union, plus the institution of a new pension system for new workers, are clear indications that the company wants to achieve maximum “flexibility” by increasing the proportion of employees with few if any benefits or protections.

The company is seeking to drive a wedge between old and new workers. This is part of a nationwide corporate strategy, initiated by President Obama’s restructuring of the auto industry, which, among other attacks, reduced the wages of new workers by half.

Although the details may change somewhat when the full contract proposal is made public, the broad outlines are clear. The union is collaborating with the company in further lowering the living standards of both current and future workers.

The WSWS spoke with Con Ed workers outside the company’s Irving Place headquarters just after the tentative settlement was announced on Thursday. A number of workers expressed reservations about the immediate return to work and fears about what the contract provisions might be.

Angel expressed skepticism and caution regarding the immediate return to work. “What did we get? I don’t like it. Why was everybody yelling when they heard there was a tentative contract? You can’t trust the union.”

Marie interjected, “It could be like in 1981 when we were out for 9 weeks. There could be 3 tentative agreements before we go back.”

“We can’t refuse to go back in, but we are making a mistake,” declared Angel. “I want to know what they are going to give me on my pension. Is the medical re-instated? Con Ed had cut it off for two weeks and then they were going to take out the payment in August, so are we covered for July? Now, we are collecting unemployment. If we go back, we won’t get unemployment if the contract is not accepted and come back out on a strike. The union has not been paying us from a strike fund. We pay almost $14 per week in union dues. If you multiply that times 8,500 members and times 52 weeks, that is millions.”

Asked by the WSWS reporter how he saw Governor Cuomo’s sudden intervention after four weeks of allowing Con Edison to risk the public safety, Angel explained, “They are scared about the severe thunderstorm [that happened over the weekend]. That is why Cuomo got involved. The problem is votes. Cuomo wants to run for president.”

Asked if he thought the lockout presented a problem for Obama’s election. Angel continued, “They saw 8,500 workers and all the people who came to the rally. My opinion of Obama is he a lousy president. We have to pay for “Obamacare” or you get fined through the IRS. Obama made it worse. He doesn’t see the people.”

Asked about Cuomo’s intervention, another locked out worker, Nigel, said, “I don’t think Cuomo is on our side.”

http://www.wsws.org/articles/2012/jul2012/cone-j30.shtml