Utility workers prepare to strike over contract

When Tropical Storm Irene struck at the beginning of the last academic year, Connecticut’s utilities had to bring in work crews from out of state to repair downed lines, causing delays that officials hope to avoid in the future.
When Tropical Storm Irene struck at the beginning of the last academic year, Connecticut’s utilities had to bring in work crews from out of state to repair downed lines, causing delays that officials hope to avoid in the future. Photo by Harry Simperingham.

Blackouts may be in store for some parts of Connecituct as workers in one of the state’s two largest utilities prepare to strike if its parent company, Northeast Utilities, refuses to budge on its proposed contract.

Employees of Connecticut Light & Power will vote on the proposed four-year contract on Oct. 3. Northeast Utilities spokeswoman Tricia Taskey Modifica said the deal would add 30 new jobs and provide a 2.75 percent pay increase during the first three years and then a 2.5 percent pay increase in the contract’s final year.

But the union is unlikely to approve the contract as it stands, said Frank Cirillo, the business manager for the union representing CL&P workers, as it does not meet workers’ needs for staffing and medical coverage. If Northeast Utilities refuses to make concessions, he added, workers are ready to strike.

“If the company refuses to negotiate, we’ll strike the properties whenever we feel like it,” Cirillo said. “If we have to strike, it’s the company that’s forcing us to do this.”

Though Modifica said she believes that the company currently employs the appropriate number of workers for its day-to-day operations, Northeast Utilities is willing to add the new jobs as a compromise. She said that it is standard utility practice to hire staff based on a company’s average workload, and bring in more experienced crews to help during storms and other emergencies.

“To hire more workers would be imprudent if there isn’t enough work to go around,” Modifica said.

But Cirillo said the current situation is not acceptable. In recent months, he said, workers have been forced to work 14 weekends in a row due to insufficient staffing.

Having to hire supplementary crews can be dangerous in an emergency situation, Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo said. Lembo emphasized the need to avoid a repeat of what took place last year during Tropical Storm Irene, when some customers were forced to go without power for two weeks as CL&P and United Illuminating Company, the state’s other major utility, brought in supplementary crews from out of state.

“Utility represents a critical part of our infrastructure, and we can’t wait 12 days to have replacement workers,” Lembo said.

Cirillo also argued that CL&P workers’ benefits are insufficient. Currently, he said, a retiree with a family plan pays close to $1,500 a month for health coverage. Due to understaffing, morale around the workplace is “lousy,” he said, and the proposed contract does little to alleviate these problems.

“We’ve been working without a contract since June 1 and been continually abused,” said Cirillo.

Modifica said union leadership has attempted to use the media to distort facts, while in reality the company values their employees’ hard work and has presented a fair offer. She also stressed that the contract would ensure four years of job security.

But Cirillo said he hopes that Northeast Utilities will return to the bargaining table before the union meets to vote, since the current offer is unlikely to be accepted.

CL&P was founded in 1917 and provides power to 1.2 million customers in 149 cities and towns across Connecticut.

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