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Utility union talking tough; National Grid pact will expire May 11.

Byline: Bob Kievra

Two Central Massachusetts locals of the Utility Workers Union of America have authorized a strike if a new contract with Westboro-based National Grid isn't reached prior to the May 11 expiration of the current four-year agreement.

The 200-member Local 330 of Worcester and the 50-member Local 329 of Hopedale voted unanimously this week to authorize the strike, replicating similar strike votes this month by the 370-member UWUA local in Braintree and a 370-member UWUA local in Providence.

UWUA Local 322 of Spencer, which represents 50 National Grid employees and Local 317 of Beverly have strike authorization votes scheduled for later this month.

The utility said it is negotiating a new agreement with both the UWUA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which together represent about 1,700 National Grid line personnel and field operations staff in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The company, which distributes electricity and natural gas in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York, said it has made contingency plans in case any job action by the unions occurs, a standard business practice for any utility.

National Grid spokeswoman Jackie Barry declined to discuss contract issues, but said the utility remains committed to its tradition of offering good jobs at good wages with good benefits.

"It's still early in the process,'' she said. "Negotiations just began last week.''

Gary P. Sullivan, president of UWUA Local 369 of Braintree, said the two sides remain far apart, separated by what the union contends is National Grid's failure to address maintenance issues that impact worker safety and service reliability.

"We haven't even talked about health benefits or wages,'' he said.

Workers want National Grid to accelerate a program to replace potted porcelain cutouts, devices that isolate sections of electric distribution lines. Union officials have complained for several years that the cutouts crack and fall apart and pose a danger to their members. National Grid has said the cutouts exhibit a slightly accelerated failure rate after eight to 10 years of service life. Some cutouts have been replaced and the remaining 250,000 will be replaced over several years.

Local 369 conducted a 16-day strike in 2005 against Boston-based NStar. The strike was settled with a new four-year contract that provided NStar with more staffing flexibility but without deep medical coverage and benefit concessions the utility originally sought.

Workers are more pessimistic regarding National Grid than they were with NStar, Mr. Sullivan said.

"NStar had been doing some of the maintenance we had been seeking but we don't have that same situation with National Grid,'' he said.

National Grid reached a tentative agreement earlier this month with Syracuse, N.Y.-based IBEW Local 97, which represents 3,210 National Grid workers in New York. The deal called for a three-year extension to the current contract, which was set to expire in 2008. The extension provides 3 percent wage increases and is contingent upon National Grid's successful $11.8 billion purchase of natural gas provider KeySpan Corp., a transaction pending before New York and New Hampshire regulators.
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 12, 2007
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