Locked out workers of Con Ed, the giant New York City utility company, on July 2 staged a noisy demonstration in front of their employer’s headquarters. The Associated Press reports that ”a chorus of honking, cheers, and whistling . . . could be heard from a couple a blocks away” as Con Ed customers, showed their support for the workers’ demonstration.
Con Ed chose to lock out its 8,500 members of the Utility Workers of America Local 1-2 Saturday night in the midst of a sweltering heat wave as the two sides reached a bargaining impasse. Con Ed wants to freeze pay, double the premium workers pay for health insurance, and eliminate a secure retirement for its workers.
Con Ed’s action is one more of a growing number of lockouts by large, highly profitable corporations, who are becoming more aggressive about lowering workers’ wages and reducing or eliminating their benefits. Apparently, capitalism in its latest stage will not tolerate a secure retirement, decent health care, and a saving wage for its workers; these fruits of the social contract between capital and labor appear now to be reserved only for a privileged few.
The union was willing to work without a contract and continue bargaining. The company, however, wanted to weaken the union’s bargaining position by demanding that bargaining could only continue if the union agreed not to strike while negotiations were in progress. When the union refused to concede its bargaining leverage, the company ordered union members off the job, and left its customers at risk of losing power in the middle of a summer heat wave that has driven New York daytime temperatures into the 90s.
In the wake of its lockout, Con Ed has closed walk-in centers, suspended meter reading, limited work on major construction projects, and assigned managers to perform the daily maintenance that keeps electricity flowing to its 3.2 million customers. The AP reports that there were 200 outages overnight between July 1 and July 2 and that about half of those outages were resolved by the morning.
On July 2, a manager filling in for locked out workers was burned in a substation fire. Workers say that accidents like this one could have been avoided if experienced workers had been on the job.
AccuWeather.com reports that there is widespread concern among Con Ed customers that the company’s lockout will soon result in a blackout. Heightening this fear is a band of thunderstorms that could produce heavy winds and lightening on Tuesday night.
Customers are also smarting from a 10 percent rate increase that Con Ed was granted last November. The rate increase was granted by regulators even though Con Ed customers pay the highest utility rates in the 48 contiguous United States. Even before the rate increase, Con Ed charged twice the national average for kilowatt usage per hour.
The hefty rates and the latest increase have been good for Con Ed’s top executive managers and largest shareholders. While Con Ed seeks to eliminate guaranteed pensions for its workers, it provides its CEO Kevin Burke with an annual compensation of $10 million and a guaranteed pension worth $18 million. It also gave members of its Board of Directors 20 percent raises and bountiful stock options.
Con Ed justifies its hard stance during negotiations by saying that it needs to control labor costs. But the union says that labor costs comprise less than 5 percent of a customers utility bill.
The New York Times reports that the two sides have agreed to resume negotiations on Thursday. They will be joined by a federal mediator.
Meanwhile, Con Ed customers are frustrated and angry. “I’m mad at Con Ed — what are they thinking?” said Ramon Nieves who manages an electronics and air conditioner store in Queens to WNBC. “A lot of people could get sick in this heat.”