Con Ed, union announce tentative agreement to end lockout

Con Ed and the United Utility Workers of America Local 1-2 announced today that they reached a tentative agreement to end the nearly month-long lock out of 8,500 union members by the utility giant. Details of the agreement were not made public. Union members must still ratify the agreement

Earlier in the day, Con Ed, which provides electric services to 3.2 million customers in the New York area, said that it was suspending the lockout so that locked workers could be on hand to repair damages from severe thunderstorms that were bearing down on the city.

Both sides faced pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to end the lock out.

Prior to the governor’s intervention, two big demonstrations were held in New York City showing that support for the Con Ed workers was growing among other unions and other labor oriented groups.

Con Ed, which reported profits of $1.05 billion in 2011, locked out its union workers on June 30 because the union would not agree to concessions demanded by the company during negotiations over a new contract.

The utility giant wanted to substantially reduce their union workers’ health care benefits and wanted to eliminate pension benefits for new hires, a move that union members feared would eventually lead the company to freeze and/or eliminate pensions of workers already on the job.

Con Ed joins a growing list of companies seeking concessions that would lower their workers’ living standards even as the companies are recording substantial profits and rewarding top executives with bonuses and raises.

Caterpillar, a manufacturer of heavy equipment, in May forced a strike by 780 IAM members at the company’s Joliet, Illinois factory that makes hydraulic parts for heavy equipment, by demanding concessions that it knew its workers could not accept.

The concessions included a six-year wage freeze for most workers, doubling workers’ costs for their health care benefit, freezing pensions and eliminating them for new hires, and ending seniority work rules.

The workers overwhelmingly rejected the offer and have been out on strike since May 1.

While Caterpillar is demanding steep concessions by its workers, it “has significantly raised its executives’ compensation,” reports Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times.

Caterpillar is also reporting a healthy bottom line. Last year’s profits were $4.9 billion, and it’s on course to do better this year. Profits for the first half of 2012 were $3.28 billion.

Con Ed, Caterpillar, and other corporations are sensing that we’ve reached a tipping point in US labor relations,  a tipping point in which it no longer takes a business slow down for companies to justify lowering their workers’ standard of living.

The tipping point comes as unions have lost power for number of reasons: to name just a few, past concessions have eroded support for unions among rank and file workers, labor laws that protected collective bargaining has been dismantled, many unions lack a strategic approach to organizing (or for that matter, any approach at all), and businesses have become more aggressive in opposing unions.

Con Ed and Caterpillar are now in the vanguard of the new labor-management paradigm, and if they succeed, even more companies will follow their lead, which is why some unions have taken notice and have decided to stand with the Con Ed workers.

On July 17, thousands of union members  the Transit Workers Union, CWA, Teamsters, United Federation of Teachers, UFCW, and others demonstrated in solidarity with the Con Ed workers.

Also supporting the Con Ed workers ere members of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and SEIU, two unions that have been helping low wage workers in New York organize.

“Your fight is our fight,” said Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU president to the crowd at the July 17 demonstration. “This struggle isn’t just about Con Ed workers, it’s about all of us.”

A week later, locked out Con Ed workers met up with and joined thousands of marchers participating in Workers Rising Day of Action as they marched through the streets of New York.

The day of action, which was organized by United New York, a community/labor organization that includes RWDSU and SEIU, was called to demand an increase in the minimum wage and to draw attention to the plight of low-wage workers.

A day after the Workers Rising demonstration and as thunderstorms threatened to cause power outages, Gov. Cuomo, who had previously been reluctant to get involved in the Con Ed lockout, urged the New York State Public Utilities Commission to become more active in ending the lockout.

After receiving a letter from Gov. Cuomo urging action, the commission announced that it would convene a meeting between the union and Con Ed.

That meeting resulted in today’s announcement about the tentative agreement.

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