As the summer heat seared New York City, tensions between the city’s major electricity company and its union reached a boiling point over the weekend. By Monday, a meltdown in the talks over pensions and benefits left thousands of Consolidated Edison utility workers suddenly frozen out of their jobs. The lockout, a classic anti-union tactic, had paralyzed both the negotiations and the livelihoods of some 8500 union members. But that afternoon, scores of locked out workers assembled outside ConEd headquarters near Manhattan’s Union Square to show they would keep the heat on their boss.
Mario, a 55-year old worker at ConEd’s East River Generating Station, wasn’t shocked by the lockout. “It’s corporate America. A lot of greed, a lot of arrogance,” he said. “Blame the unions, blame the workers, take their benefits away, and just keep increasing their bonuses.”
As of Monday, ConEd was operating on an emergency staff, with about 5,000 “managers” replacing the locked-out workers. The company promised to maintain “essential operations,” though fears of electricity breakdowns loomed large as scorching heat blanketed ConEd’s millions of customers across the five boroughs and Westchester. There were no catastrophes immediately following the lockout, according to local news reports, but outages hit some neighborhoods, and a substation fire in Brooklyn injured a manager.
Local outlets reported that talks with the union,Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2 stalled early Sunday morning, hitting a major impasse on the issue of pensions. The union said it was kicked out following a dispute over protecting workers’ retirement and health benefits, though ConEd claimed it was open to extending the talks, as long as the union agreed not to strike without first giving the company “advance notice”. The union blasted the move to constrain its striking power, noting that this concession would undermine its leverage during negotiations.
Debbie Thomas could have used some advance notice. The customer service representative would normally have gone to work at the headquarters but found herself stuck outside on Monday, standing with her fellow union members at the demonstration and getting ready to tap temporary unemployment benefits as she waited for a contract deal.
“It was a shock to me,” she said. “ ‘Cause had I known we would’ve been going out I’d be saving my money. I really don’t have no savings right now, and I never expected this to happen. But it happens.”
Union and ConEd representatives arranged to meet again on Thursday, and there was talk of using a federal mediator to try to salvage the negotiations. But the promise of resumed talks didn’t address the simmering questions facing union workers as they challenged the city’s power monopoly. Would New Yorkers turn their ire toward labor if power outages sprang up while services were suspended? Had the company now wrestled the union into a weaker bargaining position? ConEd’s website has already rolled out anti-union propaganda by assuring customers that management would work to maintain services, while suggesting that the talks had been obstructed by union leaders’ “refusal… to accept the company’s offer to extend their members’ contract for two weeks.” But for the union, the negotiations had disintegrated because their boss wasn’t interested in a meaningful compromise, as ConEd kept rejecting basic demands for a fair deal to preserve pensions and benefits.
Union spokesperson John Melia voiced concern about the potential perils of using managers as emergency staff, reported the New York Daily News: “They have placed their customers and the public at great peril… These men and women don’t have the knowledge or the expertise or the capability to keep the system operating long term… These guys don’t know how to go down into flaming manholes.”
But even if Gotham doesn’t completely short circuit, workers are inflamed by the company’s brazen dismissal of the union.
Fred, a 48 year-old mechanic at the East River station who attended Monday’s demonstration, said he was working a night shift when the lockout was imposed, and was immediately ordered out of the building, making way for the managers to take over. The efficiency of the process seemed like part of a well-planned strategy.
“This is not just something they whipped up a couple weeks ago, when they knew the contract was coming up,” he said. “So, they see what’s going on in the rest of the country, in the world. And they say we have to cut costs, to keep the stock profitable… They don’t answer to us, they don’t answer to the customers out on the street. They answer to the stockholders.”
The number of large labor clashes nationwide has ticked up since 2009. Last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “there were 19 major strikes and lockouts involving 1,000 or more workers and lasting at least one shift.” These actions stopped work for a total of more than 110,000 workers and cost about one million lost workdays. This was a marked increase from the previous year, which saw only eleven major work stoppages, impacting 45,000 workers, and just five major work stoppages in 2009. But statistically speaking, labor has overall grown less confrontational as the industrial workforce hollowed out since the Reagan Era; in the 1970s such work stoppages, including lockouts and strikes, regularly topped two hundred annually.
Sometimes a lockout can catalyze labor activism. When the defense industry giant Honeywell International locked out workers in Metropolis, Illinois in the summer of 2010, United Steelworkers Local 7-669 campaigned hard and held out for over a year, eventually wresting significant concessions from the company in their contract. But fundamentally, a lockout is an expression of corporate impunity. By paralyzing the workplace before employees can even start to mobilize for a strike, a company can instantly disempower the union and intimidate idled workers to buckle to the management’s demands. As In These Times reported earlier this year, since returning to their jobs, Honeywell workers have reported ongoing workplace safety hazards and union-busting campaigns by management.
However the standoff in New York ends, the issue at stake in the ConEd negotiations is vital not just to the union but to all the communities their workers serve: whether working people can still have the kind of economic security that past generations of blue-collar New Yorkers came to expect from employers as part of a hard-fought social contract.
Standing outside the headquarters, a locked-out operations analyst in his early 30s remarked, “When they hired me, I looked at this company like this would be the last company… ‘Cause looking around—they’re all seniors, they’re retiring. First job [is] the last job. But now, it’s totally different. There’s no more insurance anymore.”
Since he began at ConEd in the 1980s, Mario said it’s been “getting difficult to be a middle-class person in America. It looks like we’re taking steps backwards instead of forwards [on] everything… that labor has fought for.” Just a few blocks from the steamy power station where he should have been working toward his hard-earned retirement, he stood in the summer swelter at the barricade outside his employer’s offices: “I’m sure they’re in there nice and cool right now.”