NStar, strikers reach an accord

Tentative agreement awaits ratification

NStar and the union representing 1,900 of its striking workers said last night they had reached a tentative agreement to end the 13-day strike by Wednesday.

''We have signed a tentative, four-year agreement with the union leadership, and we're meeting tomorrow to finalize the details," NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen said shortly before midnight.

Gary P. Sullivan, president of Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America, which represents the nearly 1,900 electric and gas workers who walked off the job May 16, late last night confirmed that the strike will end as soon as the tentative agreement is ratified by the union membership in the next three days.

''The strike will officially end when the ballots are counted Tuesday night or Wednesday night," Sullivan said.

Neither side would give any details of how the agreement was reached on a new pact to replace the five-year contract that expired earlier this month. Local 369 and NStar have battled at the bargaining table over issues including staffing levels at the utility, maintenance and safety standards, mandatory overtime for line crews, and benefits for retirees.

Over the last two weeks, a combination of NStar supervisors and an undisclosed number of contractors has been filling in for strikers.

The members of Local 369 represent about two-thirds of the work force at NStar, which provides electric service to 1.1 million customers in Boston and 80 other cities and towns and natural gas to more than 250,000 homeowners and businesses in 51 Eastern Massachusetts communities.

''We're very pleased that we've reached a tentative agreement and look forward to having our union employees back at work serving our customers," Allen said.

Allen said that the utility and the union will meet today at noon to ''finalize the details" of the agreement.

''More information and company comment will be available after that meeting," Allen said.

Sullivan said the union wanted to keep the details of the agreement secret ''until our members see it," but praised the tentative settlement in general terms.

''I am very pleased that the local was able to provide the company the flexibility it needed to improve its customer service and at the same time guarantee the preventative maintainance and worker safety and community safety that we have been demanding,

" Sullivan said.

Local 369 represents nearly two-thirds of the utility's total work force employees.

During the talks, NStar said one of its key goals was ensuring it could deploy more maintenance crews on afternoon and evening shifts when most blackouts occur instead of paying day crews overtime, a move the utility said would bring NStar in line with police and fire personnel management and the practices of many other utilities.

Local 369 said it had been seeking to have anywhere from 100 to 300 new employees added to Nstar's workforce of 3,000, in order to ensure adequate system maintenance and avoid problems such as stray voltage from improperly secured underground wires. Three dogs have been electrocuted in Boston in the last five years, and several more shocked, by stray voltage leaking from utility- and city-owned power lines.

NStar said it was willing to hire at least 132 workers, but the company and the union disagreed over how many of those workers would be in newly-created positions and how many would simply replace workers who are scheduled to retire soon.

During the strike, supervisors taking on front-line duties and an undisclosed number of hired contractors have been filling in for striking workers, maintaining normal operations for NStar's 1.4 million electric and gas customers. For more than a week, the skeleton crew of supervisors and managers redeployed to front-line work had been able to maintain normal service for the utilities customers.

But their efforts were severely strained by a nor'easter that ripped through the region for two days beginning late Tuesday night. During the storm, more than 20,000 NStar customers lost electric service.

In some cases, it took the utility more than 18 hours to restore service.

Neither NStar nor the union would say late last night how they had reached a breakthrough on their labor contract issues.

But Sullivan said that ''it was a unanimous recommendation" by the Local's bargaining committee to accept the terms that were reached last night with the company.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent federal agency that works to resolve labor-management strife, took the unusual step of requesting a new bargaining session with Local 369 and NStar beginning at 10 a.m. yesterday, at the beginning of the three-day holiday weekend.