NStar, strikers in stare-down

Utility, workers can't even agree on what the row is really all about

No progress was made yesterday on negotiating a new contract after nearly 2,000 NStar electric and gas workers went on strike against the utility early yesterday morning.

No negotiations took place yesterday between NStar management and officials at Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America, both sides said, and no future negotiation sessions have yet been scheduled.

The two sides can't even agree on what the strike is about. The union says it is about safety issues and protecting medical coverage for union retirees, but according to NStar, the dispute is over flexible work schedules and overtime pay.

Both sides seem to be waiting for the other to make the first move.

''The ball is in their court," NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen said.

''It's up to them," said Gary Sullivan, president of Local 369. ''I'm available to meet any time."

According to NStar, its ''well-rehearsed contingency plan" for replacing striking workers with supervisors and contractors means that most of its 1.4 million customers in Eastern Massachusetts should see few major service disruptions during the strike.

NStar said that there were no big disruptions yesterday, though it did suspend its normal service guarantees, Allen said.

On its website, NStar promises residential customers that if it is late for an appointment to provide electric or gas services, ''your first month's bill is free (min. $25 -- max. $100)." The guarantee does not apply if caused by circumstances ''beyond our control, like natural disasters or other emergency situations," the website said. A strike qualifies as an emergency situation.

Still, Allen said delays should be minimal.

''We can't say we're going to be there in two hours," she said. ''It may be three hours."

According to NStar figures, just over 60 percent of its 3,007 workers are members of the striking union. Another 250 workers belong to a different union, and the ''majority" of them did not report to work yesterday, Allen said. These workers have a no-strike provision in their contract, she said, and NStar is asking them to honor it.

To continue to provide core services, many of NStar's 879 managers are working 12-hour shifts instead of the normal eight hours, said Allen, who added that NStar also is deploying ''dozens" of independent contractors to help managers.

Some jobs, such as the regular replacement of older equipment in the NStar system, are ''being put on hold" so managers can focus on high service priorities, Allen said.

The typical jobs of employees on strike include such jobs as line work, which includes making repairs and restoring power after an outage. They also read meters -- NStar is only partly through the process of automating its meter system, Allen said. Another job performed by striking workers is staffing NStar's call center, where customers request service or report problems.

Because fewer people are working the call center than normal, Allen said, ''There may be longer wait times."

According to the union, excessive staff reductions by NStar have left the utility unable to keep pace with basic preventive maintenance tasks.

Several dogs in NStar's service area have been shocked by ''stray voltage" when they walked near unsecured power lines. And last summer, a teenager in a car was badly injured in Natick when an explosion of NStar underground wiring propelled a manhole cover through the car's windshield.

The union is asking NStar to hire at least 100 additional workers to ensure that the utility can keep on top of preventive maintenance, Sullivan said.

NStar, which claims it has spent heavily on power-grid upgrades, disputes any claims that it is short-changing safety issues or that the strike is about safety.

One company goal for a new contract is to eliminate ''antiquated union work rules." Those rules, NStar says, hinder its ability to schedule work shifts to cover late afternoon and early evening hours when most power outages occur.

''We put a generous offer on the table that addresses many issues," Allen said. ''We don't feel we're that far apart. And we're willing to talk to union leaders at any time and negotiate a fair contract."

At Local 369, Sullivan said more staffing is needed for maintenance; when a worker retires, NStar rarely fills that position, and understaffing contributes to problems such as stray voltage and flying manhole covers, Sullivan said.

The union's position is that increased staffing will enable workers to proactively conduct preventive maintenance programs rather than react to problems after they arise.

Another point of contention, Sullivan said, is an NStar proposal that would eliminate medical coverage that union retirees get for dental and eye care.

''They don't want to negotiate," Sullivan said of NStar. ''They haven't moved in three weeks. In their arrogance of the last three weeks, they've pooh-poohed everything."

Chris Reidy can be reached at 

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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