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By Liza Béar | In a clear instance of “1 percent” hauteur, Con Ed C.E.O. Kevin Burke locked out 8,500 members of Local 1-2, Utility Workers Union of America, when contract negotiations broke down 10 days ago over pensions, sick leave, raises and a seven-day advance notice for strikes.
The lockout began as a heat wave threatened to put a strain on the grid and shortly before the Fourth of July holiday. Among the key sticking points: Con Ed wants to change the kind of pension benefits that union workers get from a fixed benefit based on a portion of their salaries to a 401K-type of benefit. The utility also wants to cap raises for workers in the top 20 salary brackets and to fire workers whose sick leave exceeds six months.
With the union’s four-year contract due for renewal on July 1, the lockout is now in its second week.
In a new development on Monday, John Melia, spokesman for Local 1-2 U.W.U.A., said Con Ed is trucking in replacement workers.
“Now we have out-of-state scabs arriving, and that’s extremely provocative, to say the least,” Melia told this reporter. “The workers are from Virginia and Alabama and they’re showing up with their own rigs from out of state. That’s strikebreaking in the extreme. It’s provoking types of reactions one hasn’t seen since the 1930s, practically. I mean, they’re on a dangerous course.”
Asked what expectations the union had for the contract negotiations, which were due to resume on Tuesday, Melia said the union hadn’t heard from the company yet.
“Let’s hope they show up tomorrow and want to talk,” he said.
This is the first labor lockout at Con Ed since 1983.
Contrary to claims later made in a July 5 New York Daily News full-page ad by Con Ed, the company gave no advance notice to the workers about the July 1 lockout, and two days later the company canceled these workers’ health benefits.
Five thousand supervisors from the company’s management ranks have been brought in to replace the locked-out workers. The locked-out union members include many front-line workers who deal with outages and power emergencies in dangerous situations that desk managers are not equipped to deal with. Since the lockout, there have been reports of two Con Ed workers suffering third-degree burns.
“There may be other injuries,” Melia said, “but the company’s not forthcoming with us, they’ve thrown us out of work.”
Con Ed operates as a virtual monopoly, with state-regulated earnings. In the company’s view, that is justification enough for reducing pension benefits. But critics charge the utility has no fiscal reason to do so.
While Con Ed claims its executive pay is in line with that of other utilities, C.E.O. Burke received total compensation of almost $11 million in 2011, nearly three times the median utility industry C.E.O. compensation of about $4 million.
Burke’s 2012 Forbes ranking for C.E.O. pay is higher than those of his peers at Bank of America, Caterpillar, General Electric, General Mills, Intel and UPS. Burke is paid $4,800 an hour. Nevertheless, he has asked shareholders to approve another pay raise at the same time that he seeks to cut benefits for union workers.
The picket line continues outside Con Ed headquarters at Irving Place and 14th St., just east of Union Square.