It’s a bad time to be a Con Ed employee. It’s also a bad time to need a Con Ed employee. The times are bad for basically everyone, presumably including Con Ed management, because in the middle of this heatwave, it would be ideal if the energy company was functioning at full capacity. Instead, more than 8,000 unionized Con Ed workers have been locked out after contract negotiations broke down early yesterday morning.
How did we get here?
The union contracts at Con Ed are renegotiated every four years. This go-around, the union’s primary issue is the company’s change in pension plans. The Times explains:
The workers have a traditional pension plan that promises a defined monthly benefit during retirement, but the company has been insisting on converting the pension to what is known as a cash balance plan, which tends to yield lower benefits to older workers. Con Ed stopped offering a defined-benefit pension to new hires in management positions more than a decade ago.
According union spokesperson John Melia, the issue is more than practical — it’s also symbolic. Historically, the defined-benefit plan was a sign of good faith, showing “that the company is earnest when it says it values its workers.” Any shift away from that is unacceptable.
On Friday, company representatives met with reps from the union. It didn’t go well. Con Ed said that if the union promised not to strike without 7 days notice, they’d continue the current contract. The union rejected that offer, but said they’d continue to work without a contract and continue negotiations. Con Ed wasn’t having it, and locked out the 8,000 employees — a move traditionally intended to preempt a strike (if it’s on the company’s terms, then it’s not a strike, etc.)
The union had thought the extreme heat would be a boon to their cause, since there’s no time they’re more in demand than during extreme conditions. But so far, they’ve been wrong. 5,000 Con Ed managers are currently standing in for the locked out workers, and the company is apparently confident that the “trained and experienced” subs are going to cut it.
The union, however, isn’t convinced. Melia told the Daily News:
“These men and women don’t have the knowledge or the expertise or the capability to keep the system operating long term. These guys don’t know how to go down into flaming manholes.”
Union president Harry Farrell had even harsher words in the Times:
“What they said last night to the people of New York was, ‘Drop dead.’ They’re asking retired supervisors to climb poles and work in manholes and stuff — I just don’t see it happening.”
If the union changes its mind, Con Ed would be more than happy to take the workers back, representatives told the Times. So far, though, no one is budging. Word is that the mayor’s office is in touch with both sides — Farrell expects they’ll put pressure on Con Ed to settle. In the meantime, the company is suspending meter reading, closing walk-in centers, and slowing down work on larger projects.
Putting the politics aside for a second though, let’s talk selfishly: practically speaking, what does this mean for those of us who depend on Con Ed?
So far — fingers crossed — it hasn’t had a huge impact on service. To avoid being billed for estimated gas and electric for however long meter readings are suspended, you can call Con Ed (1-800-75CONED) or visit coned.com on your would-be meter reading date. And since the walk-in centers are closed for the time being, all payments have to be made online or by phone. Con Ed has the details — though that pretty much covers it — on their site.