FRANCIS REYNOLDS/THE NATION
Hundreds of union members have descended on New York power utility Consolidated Edison’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan following the company’s decision to lock out 8,500 of its unionized workers in the midst of contract negotiations. Workers were sent home on July 1 after Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union refused to agree to give seven days’ notice before a strike. Only weeks after the debacle of the Wisconsin recall, and the subsequent consternation among many in the labor movement, it seems these boisterous union members missed the message that labor is on its way out.
About 500 union members, most of them from Local 1-2 but with contingents from SEIU Local 32BJ, CWA Local 1101 and TWU Local 100, among others, have been picketing outside Con Ed’s headquarters each day since the lockout began on July 1. Today, however, that number increased to more than a thousand, as Con Ed canceled healthcare coverage for Local 1-2 members as part of its effort to ramp up pressure on the union. Other pickets have been set up at Con Ed job sites around the region. The contract dispute centers on the fact that Con Ed wants to get rid of defined-benefit pensions and drastically increase union members’ healthcare contributions.
Lockouts have become increasingly common in recent years, as employers have become more and more proactive at trying to force givebacks on union members. Two of the three biggest work stoppages in 2011 were lockouts. Despite a contentious settlement at the Cooper Tire factory in Ohio, and the continuing fight at beet sugar factories in North Dakota, lockouts aren’t always a losing game for unions—art handlers at Sotheby’s successfully pressured the company into a new concession-free contract in May.
On the Con Ed picket line, Chris Spadafora, a mechanic for the company, pointed out that this fight is about corporate greed. “Were out here because the company didn’t want to pay us. They want to cut medical, they want to cut our pension, they want to cut our wages,” Spadafora said. “But they have a CEO who makes $4,800 per hour!” Con Ed’s CEO Kevin Burke made nearly $11 million in total compensation in 2011, a year in which Con Ed took in nearly $13 billion in revenues and more than a billion dollars in profits. Burke is also a vice chair of the Business Council of New York, the leading lobby for the 1 percent in the state. According to Spadafora, the average wage of a Local 1-2 member is $30 per hour.
Con Ed has brought in management and supervisory employees to do the jobs traditionally done by Local 1-2 members. But as Michael Sutera, another mechanic, pointed out, “They’ve called in 5,000 managers to do 8,500 people’s jobs. They can’t do our jobs. We can.” Spadafora agreed: “Even if the managers came out of the union, they’re still out of practice. One little screw-up and they’re dead. To me this shows that Con Ed doesn’t care about their people, that they’re willing to put them in harm’s way.” In fact, there have already been injuries on the job, with one manager injuring his head on the job on July 2 and another severely burning his face on July 4.