As New York City endures another heat wave, more than 8,000 experienced professionals who form the core of the city’s utility workforce continue to be locked out of their jobs at Consolidated Edison. Thousands of members of Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union and other unions from around the city rallied in Union Square on July 17 to demand that Con Ed end the lockout and that they bargain a fair contract.
Now in its third week, the lockout began during contract negotiations when Local 1-2 refused to agree to give seven days’ notice before a strike. The show of force at Tuesday’s rally demonstrated yet again that New York City’s labor movement isn’t going to take corporate greed lying down. Janitors, security guards, transit workers, telephone workers, teachers, actors, legal aid workers, municipal employees and truck drivers all came out in support of Local 1-2. Union leaders who spoke at the rally consistently emphasized that all unions must stick together. The most common chant to be heard from the army of workers in Union Square was “We Are One.”
Sandy Pope, President of Teamsters Local 805 in Long Island City, says she came with a delegation from her union because unions across the city are facing the same fight as Local 1-2: showing up at the bargaining table and having employers demand the elimination of defined-benefit pensions for new hires and for health care givebacks, with a paltry raise thrown in to make their proposals seem “fair.” “If we lose at Con Ed, the signal in the city would be a total green light for employers to go off,” says Pope. “My employers are bringing it up in bargaining. Managers at the places we’re working to organize are posting articles about the lockout to demonstrate the so-called weakness of organized labor. They’re saying, why should you join the union? Look at how weak they are.”
Just before the rally, Con Ed responded to a request for comment from the New York State Public Service Commission. Local 1-2 had requested that the PSC use its regulatory powers to end the lockout and to examine safety violations made by Con Ed. In a 62-page response, Con Ed argued that the union’s refusal to provide notice before going on strike meant that they had to lock the employees out. The entire basis for the labor dispute, however, could have been avoided by Con Ed. The union’s only demands at the bargaining table are to maintain the existing health and benefits structure, in addition to a raise that corresponds with Con Ed’s profits. Con Ed made more than a billion dollars in profits last year.
The union pointed out that Con Ed has delayed inspections of transformers and manholes during the lockout, which are key to identifying potential issues in the power system. Con Ed’s practice of having inexperienced managers run the system while its workers are locked out has led Local 1-2 to file complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The leaders of Local 1-2 are interested in pursuing more aggressive legislative solutions to the dispute. Local 1-2 President Henry Farrell said that the union would be proposing legislation that would cap the pay of executives at Con Ed. Con Ed’s Chairman and CEO Kevin Burke made nearly $11 million last year. Other unions seemed eager to pitch in with the struggle. SEIU Local 1199 President George Gresham raised the possibility of a general utility bill strike, saying that he would not pay his bill until the lockout was over and would encourage his nearly 350,000 members to not pay theirs either.
Although City Comptroller John Liu and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer—both potential 2013 Mayoral candidates—showed up in solidarity with the locked out workers, Andrew Cuomo’s name was noticeably absent from discussion at the event. New York City’s labor movement had been split over his election, and Cuomo has not taken a stand on the lockout, despite his 2010 endorsement from Local 1-2. Con Ed has contributed at least $250,000 to the Committee to Save New York, a PAC that exists to support Cuomo’s agenda in Albany.
Jamie Court, the President of the advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog, has a more expansive legislative resolution in mind: making Con Ed a public utility controlled by the people instead of by private interests. “Public utilities deliver services in a much more effective way, and without the histrionics that private utilities often get into,” Court says. “Ultimately, public utilities are accountable to elected officials, to voters and consumers. Con Ed is acting more like a union-buster and a bully. To lock out utility workers in such high temperatures puts people in danger, and I cannot imagine a public utility taking that kind of action.”