Contract restores health benefits immediately

NStar workers to vote tomorrow

NStar utility workers are expected to be back at work on Thursday under a proposed contract deal reached yesterday by the utility and the union that immediately restored health benefits for the workers.

Late yesterday, NStar and representatives of Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America signed a four-year pact that will be presented to 1,900 union members for a vote tomorrow, officials said. In one key move to mend fences with the union, NStar immediately restored health benefits for striking workers that it had cut hours after they walked off the job on May 16.

Few details of the agreement were divulged yesterday, but both sides said they had been able to reach a compromise addressing each other's key concerns during two days of negotiations under the aegis of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

The contract will give NStar more flexibility to schedule crews to work afternoon and evening shifts when most blackouts occur, instead of paying day crews overtime. Union leaders are getting new jobs added in preventive maintenance, and NStar is backing off some pension and benefit reductions it had sought.

In an era when organized labor has become less and less of a counterweight to big corporations, and strikes far less common, Local 369 president Gary P. Sullivan called the strike a success for the union movement.

''We're just happy that in a day and age when people may think the tactic of a strike may not work, with the right issue and when your members stick together it can work," he said.

NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen said the utility considers the new contract fair to both sides. ''NStar is pleased that we have an agreement, and we look forward to having our union employees back at work serving our customers."

NStar chief executive Thomas J. May said in a statement, ''The company will be able to provide better service than ever while at the same time holding the line on rising costs."

With the National Weather Service forecasting no storms between now and Thursday of the magnitude of last week's two-day northeaster, service is expected to be close to normal for NStar's 1.1 million electric customers. NStar provides power in Boston and 80 Eastern Massachusetts cities and towns.

During last week's storm, 20,000 NStar customers lost service. Waits of 12 to 18 hours and longer to have power restored were common as a combination of contractors and inexperienced supervisors and managers filling in as linemen struggled to get the lights back on. Power to the last of the customers affected by the storm was restored Saturday, Allen said.

Meteorologist Alan Dunham of the National Weather Service in Taunton said there should be no blackout-threatening violent weather between now and Thursday, just the continued possibility of small, scattered rain showers. ''It'll be a relatively quiet week weatherwise, and much less volatile than last week," Dunham said.

Aside from delays in restoring power after last week's storm, the strike has also caused delays for NStar customers calling for other service issues or requesting new power connections.

NStar and union officials said they were pledging not to release details about the tentative contract agreement until it is presented to members at their Braintree union hall today. But both confirmed that work-shift changes were agreed on.

''All along, the company was committed to making some changes to serve our customers better," Allen said. ''We're very pleased that the union was willing to make a few key adjustments to that end. We believe this is a fair contract for both sides."

Allen said NStar had also restored, retroactive to the May 16 start of the strike, its 85 percent contribution to strikers' Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance. In a move that union leaders denounced as heartless, NStar slashed its healthcare contribution within hours of the start of the strike.

Workers could still get health coverage if they paid the full bill, and NStar said it was obvious that workers choosing to strike would forfeit pay and benefits. But union leaders and many elected officials blasted NStar's move as excessively harsh to workers facing cancer treatments, childbirth, and expensive medical procedures.

Allen and Sullivan said NStar also agreed to meet a key union demand to add new staff dedicated to performing preventive maintenance, but would not give details. Union officials said they think NStar needs to add as many as 300 workers to its staff of 3,000 to ensure reliable, safe electric and gas service.

Local 369 members will continue to picket NStar sites until the contract is ratified tomorrow evening, Sullivan said. But they are being ''asked and advised to be less aggressive on the picket lines," he said.

Crews entering and exiting NStar facilities have been heckled and taunted by pickets, and several repair crews last week were shadowed by placard-toting strikers. No violence or disruptions have been reported by NStar.