Woman's NStarry night
Standard-Times staff writer NEW BEDFORD --

When a falling tree crashed through Bernice Timm's roof and deck Wednesday night, an unusual group of people responded to the situation. Ms. Timm of 170 Park St. said she expected the Police and Fire departments, who showed up within minutes. She hadn't been ready for the seven striking NStar workers who followed. "Isn't that odd?" she said. "They offered me coffee and said, 'There's nothing we can do.' " Ms. Timm thought the worst part of her night was the large oak that damaged her house and flattened part of her neighbor's fence. She hadn't counted on being stuck in the middle of a labor dispute. Thanks to a depleted NStar work force, Ms. Timm was left without power for about 22 hours. When an NStar work crew showed up at her house early yesterday morning, they were confronted by more strikers, she said. "They were very nice," Ms. Timm said of the strikers. "But they were more worried about their contract, it seemed, than getting my power back on." Nearly 2,000 members of Utility Workers of America Local 369 have been on strike from NStar since May 16, due to a complete breakdown in contract negotiations. To compensate for the loss of two-thirds of its labor force, NStar authorized longer shifts for its managers and brought in outside contractors. But when forecasters began predicting a windstorm for this week, the company cautioned that its response times to power outages would be slowed. The union workers say NStar wants to unfairly cut retirement benefits, does not have a large enough staff and refused to perform preventive maintenance. The company says it has made a generous wage offer, and the union is misleading the public about safety. Bundled up in a blanket on her couch at about 5 p.m. yesterday, with a propane space heater at her feet, Ms. Timm said she didn't particularly care about the contract issues. She had been without power and heat for 20 hours. "I just want my electricity back," she said. "If this were a regular power outage, this would have been a 45-minute wait." Ms. Timm, who lives with her daughter and 12-year-old grandson, said her family had been fighting with the city for three years to have the big tree next to her house on Morgan Street cut down. But she and city officials say there was a dispute over the tree hearing that would have been necessary to bring the old oak down. Ms. Timm said she was concerned about branches falling off the tree. About 9 p.m. Wednesday, a windstorm made sure she would never have to worry about that again. "There was a loud bang and there were sparks, and we saw the tree had fallen," she said. She said the Fire Department made sure the house was safe, but NStar never showed up to restore her power, despite several calls to its service line. "Every time I called, it says they're on strike," she said. A group of NStar managers finally did arrive early yesterday morning, but they were only allowed to briefly restore Ms. Timm's electricity. Shortly after the power came back on, Ken Blanchard, superintendent of public facilities, noticed that Public Works employees were trying to remove the tree near downed power lines, according to City Solicitor Matt Thomas. Blanchard allowed the NStar managers to leave the power on for half an hour to heat Ms. Timm's house, then told them to shut it down until the tree was gone, Mr. Thomas said. When the NStar managers tried to leave the property, a group of strikers wouldn't let them, Ms. Timm said. "The police showed up and took care of it," she said. "I didn't want to get involved." Brendan Sullivan, an executive board member of Local 369, said the strikers showed up out of concern over NStar's response times after the storm. If there were any words between strikers and management at Ms. Timm's home, he said, it was just union members "doing their normal picketing duty and letting the public know that we're out of work because of unfair treatment," Mr. Sullivan said. Mike Durand, an NStar spokesman, said work crews encountered strikers in other areas after the storm, but he declined to go into specifics. "Our management and contractor crews have been working tirelessly through this storm ... and I'm sure most people would agree that the weather alone has been a large enough obstacle for our crews to overcome," he said. Ms. Timm said an NStar crew returned to her house at about 7 p.m. yesterday -- escorted by two police cruisers -- and restored her power. She said she is less concerned about the strike than relieved to be able to come out from under the blanket. "I'm nice and warm now," she said.