7:52 PM EDT, September 14, 2012
Connecticut Light & Power Co. has made its last, best offer to its unions for a four-year contract — including a promise to hire 30 more line workers and pay raises averaging 2.7 percent — but the deal is likely to go down in a 'no' vote on Oct. 3.
The reason isn't pay, as the average lineman makes $38 an hour and works several hours a week of overtime. Rather, it's the size of the workforce, a growing standoff at a time when CL&P's reliability and responsiveness is still a matter of debate since the debacles of last fall.
As of today, the total number of linemen — they are all men, except one woman in Hartford — is 397 in two union locals of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, down from 416 at the time of the October snowstorm last fall. The 30 added workers, though, will still leave the company and its customers in the lurch as a wave of retirements happen, one of the union leaders said Friday.
"They want to bring us back to the levels of 2007, 2008. It's totally unacceptable," said Frank Cirillo, business manager of Local 420. As for the 30 hires, "it's not even an appetizer. … what we've got, we call the gray-haired tsunami."
The trouble, Cirillo and others say, is that it takes more than four years for a newly hired line worker to become a journeyman. "They need an attrition plan. They don't have one," Cirillo said, adding that the ranks have been cut in half since a generation ago, while the job has basically remained the same.
On top of the workforce issue, the unions oppose CL&P efforts to increase workers' share of health insurance premiums, which are now about 85 percent paid by the company.
The result, Cirillo declared, is that IBEW Local 420 leadership will recommend a 'no' vote and his counterparts at Local 457 will do the same. This comes as the union works under a contract that expired June 1. Since a 'no' vote authorizes a strike, we could be looking at a walkout as the cold months hit — exactly when the ice storms could start.
CL&P says its staffing is where it should be — and that ridiculous, arcane union work rules prevent the company from operating at full efficiency.
"It would be imprudent to hire people when the work isn't there," said Caroline Pretyman, a spokeswoman for Northeast Utilities, the parent of CL&P. "In terms of upgrades or the maintenance of our system, we think we have the number of workers that reflect the work that is there ... when we have a storm, of course we're going to call on contractors and outside workers."
Pretyman makes the point that no reasonable amount of hiring will address the needs of a widespread emergency like the ones we had last year. There were, for example, 2,200 two-person crews on the ground at the height of the restoration early last November, she said — far more than the ratepayers can afford to keep on staff.
The bigger issue than overall numbers is flexibility, Pretyman says. For example, the company would like to launch a second shift for linemen, which — amazingly — it does not now have. "Most power outages are in the afternoon or early evening hours," she said. "Just as police officers, firefighters and other public safety workers are scheduled at different shifts, we need that flexibility."
Cirillo and John Fernandes, business manager of local 457, say they don't oppose a second shift but the numbers don't support it. Because of union rules, it would be staffed by younger, less senior guys, leaving the oldest workers on the day shift, unable to get all the regular work done.
There are other work rules in dispute, which the company claims allow workers over age 45 to decline some non-emergency overtime, and allow workers to decline non-emergency overtime in different zones of the state, or allow workers to decline to work with members of a different color group — the contracts are divided between blue and green, dating to the 1970s merger of old Hartford Electric Light Co. into CL&P.
Cirillo says the company is lying about some of these work rules — the company enforces what it wants, he said, and, anyway, the rules do not impede efficiency, he argued. "It hasn't been at all inefficient, that's total bull."
Staffing came up in the talks leading up to the April merger of NU and Boston-based NSTAR, when the companies promised not to cut the number of workers in the field, and in customer service. That matters because in office work, NU and CL&P have begun cutting jobs.
State regulators have the right to review line worker staffing, but the rules are fuzzy on actual numbers. The recent order by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority states, for example, "CL&P shall formulate a plan to establish a heightened state of readiness … by July 1 of each year."
What we have is a balancing act. Since ratepayers pony up for added staffing, regulators and state Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz, whose office advocates for ratepayers, don't want to see a fat payroll. On the other hand, they need to make sure we have not only reliability and resiliency, but reasonable wait times for regular service — something the union leaders say is not in place now.
"I hope they come to their senses and think about what their need is vs. what their want is," Fernandes said.
With overtime, the average lineman makes over $100,000 — something Cirillo is not apologizing for. They do dangerous work under brutal conditions, on call constantly, and many have had multiple surgeries. And anyway, the company can't gain the upper hand on pay until it stops handing out salaries in the millions to executives of a fully regulated firm, with virtually guaranteed margins.
Here is what you will not hear at the union rally scheduled for Monday at noon at the state Capitol, or from company officials: What we have here is a broken system with a standoff that will not end without outside intervention. We're relying on a method in which regulators have purview over staffing only when a rate case comes up, and in which collective bargaining is the only check against a company's cutting too deeply.
There is no way for a journalist, or the public, to sort through the accusations and countercharges about these staffing levels and work rules, though it certainly looks as though the company needs to hire more than 30 line workers and the union needs to give back some of the rules.
What's needed is a neutral mediation, now, on the best way to reorganize the work in a way that's efficient and fair — for employees, stockholders and ratepayers. Not a mediation around a table in a conference room, but on the ground, the way a consulting firm would operate, by investigating to see who's right and who's wrong in the 18 CL&P field work centers.
And some of the added line workers, whether the number is three or 30 or 300, need to be women.
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