Unite joined US gas workers — members of United Steelworkers (USW), Unite’s sister union in North America — to stage a demonstration at the National Grid’s AGM in Birmingham this morning (July 30).
The solidarity action organised through Workers Uniting, a global union bringing together Unite and USW, was held in protest against the actions of the US-based division of the UK multinational company, which last month locked out 1,200 staff and in the process dropped their healthcare coverage.
The lockout occurred on June 24 after workers refused to accept company proposals that would see their defined-benefit pension scheme closed to new members, wage protections slashed and the cost to staff of health insurance substantially increased.
After negotiations between management and the union broke down, the firm locked out workers from coming into work, cut off their health insurance and drafted in inexperienced temporary workers to maintain gas supplies.
Health and safety fears
The National Grid workers are fearful that bringing in less experienced contractors – many of whom have undertaken only a few weeks of training – could cause a major accident.
Since the lockout, local politicians in several towns and cities in Massachusetts where National Grid operates have suspended non-emergency gas works after 25 safety violations were reported.
The 1,200 workers who have been locked out from work for over a month face not only loss of wages but the termination of health insurance coverage for both them and their families.
National grid worker and USW member Brian Harvey recently found out that his young son has late stage cancer. Harvey was locked out of his job and denied health insurance the same week his son was scheduled for his first chemotherapy treatment.
“You’re basically just a number to them,” Harvey said. “What I would say to National Grid is, ‘how greedy can you be?’ And is it worth it to you, the more money you put in your pocket, is it worth it to hurt all these people?”
Indeed, National Grid’s pursuit of profits is insatiable – despite record profits, a significant tax break from the Trump administration and a hefty rate rise for US consumers, the company is still trying to force through changes to staff contracts that make workers pay.
Workers Uniting sub-director Steve Finnigan said cutting health insurance was “despicable behaviour by the company. This is threatening family health in an attempt to force employees to accept worse conditions.”
“This is a terrible example of heartless corporate greed and reckless disregard for public safety,” he added. “National Grid needs to reinstate health insurance, end the lockout and negotiate in good faith with its workforce. Workers Uniting will remain firm in its support for these workers.”
Unite regional officer Brian Rickers, who attended today’s protest, said that the demo was “a strong show of solidarity.”
“In an age of globalisation, international solidarity like this becomes all the more important,” he added. “The National Grid workers have been treated absolutely appallingly and we stand together with them in their fight for justice.”
Unite national officer for energy Peter McIntosh agreed.
“It was a very well-attended demonstration and shows the strength of feeling workers both here and across the pond have against the deplorable actions of National Grid,” he said.
Leaders of two USW local branches attended the National Grid AGM in Birmingham where they both put questions to the National Grid chairman.
President of USW Local 12012 John Buonopane asked about the impact the contentious lockout would have on the company’s reputation, especially at a time when the firm wants to grow its presence in the US.
“Basically they didn’t answer the question,” Buonopane told UNITElive.“They called the lockout ‘unfortunate’ and that they didn’t want it to happen. It’s frustrating how dismissive the company has been about the lockout while knowing the suffering it has caused for more than a thousand workers and their families.”
In his question, USW President of Boston Gas Local 12003 Joe Kirylo highlighted health and safety fears at National Grid – both issues that have stretched back several years and more recent concerns over temporary workers replacing skilled staff amid the lockout.
Kirylo told UNITElive that the chairman said that arrangements with replacement workers were “working well” and denied any safety violations.
“The chairman is either lying or he isn’t being told the truth,” Kirylo said. “I told the chairman I have over 30 videos of clear public safety violations that I could share with him. I would imagine at a shareholders meeting with so many investors, he would want to play things down but it is outrageous the utter disregard the firm has over health and safety.”
‘Abuse of power’
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail argued that everyone in the UK should care about the National Grid lockout – it shows the importance of our NHS and the need to defend it.
“The abuse of power could not be more stark,” she said of the lockout in a Morning Star comment today. “The workforce and their families access to health insurance cut off overnight.
“That is powerful leverage only possible because, in the US, health provision is a market of sellers and buyers and healthcare doesn’t come cheap.
“In Trump’s US even the modest Obamacare is being rolled back and we have seen vulnerable patients dumped by the roadside wearing nothing more than their hospital gowns,” she added.
“This year ‘our NHS,’ Labour’s lasting legacy, celebrated its 70th birthday. The idea that an employer could wield the power to turn off our entitlement to NHS services is abhorrent. That workers and their families should face a cliff edge of care at an employer’s behest is inhumane.
“Insight into how employers in the US can turn the tap off on health insurance should stiffen our resolve to defend our NHS.”