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Staffing Issues Dominate Conn. Utility Negotiations


September 19, 2012


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It’s not like the alarm hadn’t been sounded. Long before a nasty storm hit New England in October 2011—only two months after Tropical Storm Irene—IBEW leaders of two locals representing workers at Connecticut Light and Power Co. had warned customers that cutting linemen jobs was going to result in lengthy power outages.

Today, the need for proper staffing at CL&P is not only being widely discussed in the media and at customers’ dinner tables.  Reduced manpower—which contributed to some residents being out of power for 11 days a year ago—is at issue in contract negotiations between Waterbury Local 420 and Meriden Local 457 and CL&P over a contract that expired in June. The company has proposed its last, best offer to the unions, but the negotiating committees are recommending that the offer be voted down because it doesn’t adequately address staffing.

Members of the local unions have held two informational picket lines at the state capitol in Harford and their business managers have been frequently quoted in news stories and op-ed editorials on the issues facing workers and the public at CL&P. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) has called upon CL&P to hire more workers in his campaign for reelection.

“The public and the politicians are on our side,” says Local 420 Business Manager Frank Cirillo, who, along with Local 457 Business Manager John Fernandes, put a request across the bargaining table for CL&P to replace every worker who permanently vacated their jobs over the last two years and to add five workers to every department. The locals are also opposing efforts by the utility to force members to pick up more of their health care insurance costs. Cirillo told the Hartford Courant:

They told us at negotiations they would hire 30 more line workers. That’s not enough. My mother had to live with me during both storms last year. Our job is to keep the lights on. Our worst nightmare is when we get an ice storm … It’s not if, it’s when.

While CL&P argued that the October 2011 ice storm—which crushed trees that still held their leaves—was an extraordinary event, workers and consumers blamed the company for putting profits ahead of service.

Local 420’s Web site reported on a member who made his own T-shirt with the slogan “C (Conn.) L (Loot) and P (Plunder)--Miracle Division—If your lights are on,   it’s a miracle.”

Cirillo says members are also dissatisfied with what he says are unreasonable and “wacky” proposals from CL&P to change work schedules for the remaining short-handed crews. He told the Hartford Courant that, since it takes more than four years to train new linemen, the company’s proposal to bring linemen forces back to the levels of 2007 and 2008 are “totally unacceptable.” With many baby boomer hires readying to retire, Cirillo says:

What we’ve got, we call the gray-haired tsumani.

Since 2004, Local 420’s work force has dropped from more than 800 to 700.And Northeast Utilities, the parent company of CL&P, reported a profit of $281 million and its CEO received a 16-percent raise. NU, which merged with NSTAR five months ago, is currently restructuring and laying off white collar workers not represented by the union.

The local unions helped to lobby state legislators who voted 148-0 after the fall 2011 storm to authorize the Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control to assess fines on CL&P for poor service and to set new staffing levels. The department has not yet completed its work.

IBEW locals have repeatedly offered proposals to improve storm restoration work. But Locals 420, 457, Springfield, Mass., Local 455, and Manchester, Maine, Local 1837, all representing NU workers, were excluded from the company’s storm plan discussions.

Last year, Cirillo asked that the company send workers from Yankee Gas Service Companies, an IBEW-represented entity of NU, for training in handling downed wires to supplement linemen. But the company still has not scheduled classes. Cirillo says:

Many Yankee Gas workers, who were formerly part of CL&P, have electrical experience, but the company is dragging its feet on utilizing their skills.

 During the October storm, Local 420 convinced CL&P to ask for assistance from IBEW’s Second District, which supplied electricians to help restore power. But the utility has resisted any long-term commitment to using members of the building and construction trades during future outages.

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On July 30, local union members held a march and informational picket at Northeast Utilities’ corporate headquarters protesting understaffing and use of out-of-state contractors.

After CL&P tried to restrict members’ participation in the activities, the locals filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the company was illegally restraining workers from engaging in protected activity in support of their bargaining objectives.

Another informational picket at the state capitol is being planned. IBEW locals have received commitments of support from the Firefighters, who say they are concerned that—without sufficient crews to restore power—they are forced to guard downed lines for extended periods of time during storms, jeopardizing their own timely attention to fires. Members of the Communications Workers, facing their own challenges on staffing at AT&T, are also planning to join the picketing.

In a September 14 op-ed in the Hartford Courant, Fernandes and Cirillo ask:

Who do you want standing between a blackout and Connecticut’s increasingly frequent storms—a utility worker in a hardhat behind the wheel of a bucket truck or someone in a $2,000 suit steering a desk in Hartford or Boston?

Saying that money that could have been spent on hiring new workers went to huge management salaries, the local leaders add:

This is not about class warfare; it is about bringing a reliable power service to the residents of Connecticut.

Cirillo continues to appear on local radio shows and other public venues. And he links the unsettled contract at CL&P to the nation’s political debate. He says:

All you hear nowadays from some people is how wealth will “trickle down.”  I am a firm believer in middle class trickle down. As you know, the more we make, the more we spend. The senior officers of the companies we work for make millions of dollars each year and I don’t see them trickling down anything. The greedy CEO’s across this country are called ‘job creators’ by the average talk show hosts. The truth is they are ‘outsource creators’ and ‘scab contractor creators.’ There is no future for any of these creations.