NStar union workers begin strike
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Standard-Times staff writer

JACK IDDON/The Standard-Times
NStar workers picket yesterday at MacArthur Drive facilities in New Bedford.
NEW BEDFORD -- Nearly 2,000 electrical and gas workers at NStar went on strike yesterday claiming that heavy reductions in staffing and an aging electrical system in need of constant repair have employees dangerously overworked.
Arthur Rebello, vice president of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 369, said contract negotiations with the company -- aimed, in part, at fixing the problems -- had broken down. The union, which represents about 200 SouthCoast workers, went on strike at 12:01 a.m. yesterday, when its current contract expired.
"We've lost about 100 jobs in this area alone," Mr. Rebello said. "Our guys have to work 500, 600 or 700 overtime hours because we don't have the personnel. When I first got here 25 years ago, we had departments that had 25 to 30 people. Now those departments are down to eight or nine people."
Employees who work long hours face dangerous situations while handling the likes of old wiring and outdated and overloaded electrical transformers, Mr. Rebello said. He also said that failure to replace retired employees has left workers unable to keep up with basic preventive maintenance.
In the event of a power outage while the strike is ongoing, restoring power could take much longer than usual, he said.
But NStar, which serves 1.4 million customers in eastern and central Massachusetts, immediately assured its customers that its electrical and gas systems would continue to run smoothly and safely despite the strike. NStar implemented a contingency plan to provide service by using qualified management employees and contractors to fill in for striking workers.
NStar also claimed the union was using scare tactics and false claims of unsafe conditions to mask the real reasons they bolted from the negotiating table -- namely "issues of pay, benefits and changes to outdated work rules," company spokesman Michael Durand said.
"We value our employees and the package we offered reflects that," he said. "It includes pay and staff increases and continued world-class benefits. It was a generous offer and we think that if our employees had seen it they would have come to the same conclusion.
"Unfortunately, the union leadership decided against allowing our employees to see the offer."
The contract would have added 132 new union positions as well as pay raises for union members, Mr. Durand said. The average union member makes $97,000 a year, according to NStar.
But the new contract would have also done away with restrictive clauses that hindered NStar's ability to respond to outages, Mr. Durand said. For example, "antiquated" union rules prevent NStar from scheduling afternoon shifts for its overhead electrical line workers, he said.
The afternoon is statistically when the most outages occur, Mr. Durand said. During those outages, off-duty union workers have grown used to being called in and paid overtime wages -- a perquisite they are reluctant to give up but that hurts customers by driving up costs, he said.
Union members yesterday picketed the NStar facility on MacArthur Drive, wearing signs around their necks. Drivers passing on Route 18 honked their horns in support of the strikers.
When an NStar truck driven by employees not striking passed by, union member Wayne Lima quickly lifted from his pockets photos of his 9- and 5-year-old daughters.
"This is what it's all about man!" he yelled. "Equal distribution of wealth!"
NStar is making a lot of money and in the meantime takes advantage of the average guy, Mr. Rebello said. Of particular concern for the union is that its retired members might lose their dental and vision benefits, he said.
"Let's face it, when do you need vision and dental?" Mr. Rebello asked. "When you're older. What they are saying is that older people don't need their eyes or their teeth."
But NStar denies having changed retiree benefits.
"All we've asked for regarding the health benefits of workers is a modest increase in what they pay towards the cost of the plan," Mr. Durand said. "This is a national issue with runaway health care costs. It is not an NStar issue."

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