NStar workers approve labor pact

Higher pay, health cost hikes, changes in work rules OK'd

BRAINTREE -- NStar workers last night overwhelmingly voted to end a 16-day strike, ratifying a four-year contract that gives the utility more flexibility in assigning line crews without some of the deeper concessions NStar had demanded on medical coverage and benefits.

The 1,900 members of Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America, who pledged to return to work starting tomorrow, will get 3 percent wage increases in each of the next four years. But they will have to increase their contribution for health insurance by one-third between now and 2009.

Both sides said they secured key goals, but neither declared a resounding victory.

In exchange for agreeing to have more line-repair crews work afternoon and evening shifts during summer lightning-storm months, several categories of technical and repair workers are getting additional pay increases of up to 2.5 percent, and they can continue to use overtime work to increase their vacation pay and retirement savings.

''The strike was absolutely worth it," said Jim McLaughlin, a 15-year NStar veteran who works as a meter reader out of the Southborough office, after voting at the Local 369 union hall in Braintree. ''I think the company was looking to take back a lot of stuff that people who came before us fought to get for us, and I thought it was important to fight for them, and for our future."

Many NStar strikers said they thought last week's unusual weather helped force the utility to settle. Normally, May is a time of low stress on the electric grid because it is well after winter snowstorms and well before hot summer weather that increases power demand for air conditioning and poses the threat of lightning-induced outages.

But last week, with two-thirds of its staff off the job, NStar struggled to restore service after a freak May northeaster ripped through Eastern Massachusetts and cut power to about 20,000 customers.

Don Stirling, who has been with NStar for 22 years and works as an underground-line troubleshooter, said the storm blew away any hopes NStar had of muddling through with a skeleton staff while waiting for the union to crack. ''I think that expedited the inevitable," Stirling said. ''It gave the company an awakening. It made them realize how unprepared they really were far sooner."

NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen and other NStar executives insisted it was efforts late last week by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, not the storm, that helped to secure a contract deal. By the time the tentative pact was reached, shortly after 11:30 p.m. Saturday, power had been restored to all customers affected by the storm.

Allen said NStar's ''contingency plan" to use contractors and supervisors redeployed to front-line work was succeeding, and she added, ''The weather really had no bearing on the timing of the agreement."

A total of 1,277, or 87 percent, of the 1,466 union members who cast ballots voted in favor of the contract, Local 369 president Gary P. Sullivan said. The rest voted no or cast a blank ballot.

Claudia Stewart, a customer service representative who has worked for NStar and predecessor Boston Edison Co. for 25 years, said the final contract reflected compromise by both sides. ''Some things you're going to like, some things you're not going to like," Stewart said. ''The best thing is that we're back to work, and I think the company will have a whole different attitude and appreciate how hard we work."

Contractors and supervisors trained as line workers have been filling in for Local 369 members since they went on strike May 16, when a five-year contract expired.

Allen said the three best gains for the company in the new contract are increased flexibility scheduling workers when they are most needed for customer service, increased employee contributions to fast-growing health insurance costs, and achieving ''a fair wage settlement."

In one key change, NStar will be able to assign as many as 45 of its 300 overhead power line workers to work from noon to 10 p.m. four days a week between June and mid-September, instead of the usual five-day, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule, and also assign them to work Saturdays and Sundays.

That will help NStar assure it has enough workers on the job during the times it is most likely to face blackouts caused by lightning storms. It will also reduce the company's obligation to pay overtime to day-shift workers held over to work into the evening and night.

Facts about the strike

The 1,900 striking NStar utility workers last night ratified a four-year contract that gives them 3 percent annual wage increases in each of the next four years. Here’s what each side got and gave on some key issues:

WORK RULES: NStar can assign more crews to afternoon and evening shifts to reduce overtime for day crews, and a few hundred employees now working 8-hour shifts must work 8 1/2 hours. In exchange, several job categories get extra 1 to 2.5 percent raises, and union members can continue to use overtime to increase vacation pay and 401(k) matches.

HEALTH INSURANCE: NStar gets to increase employees' share of costs from 15 percent now to 20 percent by 2009; retirees keep dental and vision care but have to pay more.

STAFFING: NStar agrees to add 150 new positions, including dedicated system-maintenance jobs, but 20 are call-center agents working part time instead of full time.

PENSIONS: Workers hired going forward are put on lower-benefit pension plan. Current employees and retirees keep current pension plan, but retiree life insurance coverage drops to $20,000 from $30,000.

Peter J. Howe can be reached at