NStar cancels striking workers' health benefits By Associated Press Wednesday, May 18, 2005 - Updated: 06:19 PM EST BOSTON - NStar has canceled the health benefits of more than 1,900 striking workers - a tactic one labor expert called unusually aggressive and an indication that the electric and gas utility is digging in for a long strike. NStar linemen, engineers and other workers walked off the job Monday after a five-year contract expired and negotiations toward a new agreement collapsed. That same day, the company canceled union members' medical, dental and vision benefits through Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts, NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen said Wednesday. Utility Workers of America Local 369 said it learned of the cancellation from a Blue Cross representative and called the tactic a ``harmful retaliation.'' ``Their actions are unconscionable and put the safety and health of members in jeopardy with no advance warning,'' local president Gary Sullivan said. Allen said striking workers can extend their benefits through so-called COBRA coverage, which allows workers leaving a job to continue participating in the company plan for a limited time, as long as they pay the entire cost. ``When employees do not report for duty and instead strike the company, those employees surrender their compensation, including pay, health care benefits and all other aspects of compensation,'' Allen said. ``We cannot ask our customers to pay for wages or benefits for employees who are choosing not to work.'' Professor Tom Juravich, director of The Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, called NStar's move ``an extremely aggressive tactic which is not typical of most disputes. ``To me it indicates that this company is not trying to settle this dispute, but really trying to prolong it and set itself up so that maybe they can break the union,'' Juravich said. Companies facing strikes typically do not bother with the paperwork and expense of canceling benefits unless they believe the dispute will last more than a few weeks, he said. No new talks are scheduled between NStar and the union, which includes nearly two-thirds of the company's 3,000 workers. The Boston-based, investor-owned utility is relying on managers and contractors working overtime to continue service to customers in eastern and central Massachusetts.
Contract issues include the proposed elimination of vision and dental care for retirees, forced overtime, and pension benefit cuts for new workers. NStar also wants to change a work scheduling rule it considers antiquated, and the union accuses the company of reducing staff so drastically that crews can no longer do preventive maintenance to address safety problems. NStar serves about 1.1 million electric customers and 300,000 natural gas customers in the Boston metropolitan area, Worcester and coastal areas from Cape Cod to Cape Ann.


  Striking workers at NStar's Massachusets Ave. facility surround a tractor trailor entering the property. (Staff photo by Mike Adaskaveg)

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