On July 26, Utility Workers Union Local 1-2 announced it had reached a tentative agreement with Con Ed, which had locked out over 8,000 union workers at the start of the month (see earlier story). The union ordered its members back to work that very day. Next, the union’s council will vote on the contract, and then the membership. The agreement’s terms are not known, and apparently the membership will not even see the contract it votes on, but only receive a summary.Both sides had come under pressure from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who did nothing to prevent or end the lockout earlier, but who was afraid of what might happen during a blackout. He twisted arms right before a big storm was expected.
Con Ed supplies the electricity to four of the five boroughs of New York City and parts of Westchester County.
Thousands March in Support
MHI attended a march and rally in support of the locked out workers on July 17. Several thousand union members from across New York City turned out: transit workers, telephone workers, teachers, retail clerks, civil servants, and many more. Unfortunately, there were not hundreds of thousands of union members and supporters there. It was also sad that the demonstration marched from Con Ed headquarters exactly one block west to Union Square Park, where we were permitted to congregate and shout all we wanted without disrupting Con Ed in the least.
At the rally, we gave out the story we had gotten from the workers earlier, “Con Ed Workers Speak from the Picket Line.” The Con Ed workers who read it said was a very good and true story. In contrast, other leftists gave out flyers telling the workers “the correct strategy” they supposedly needed to follow in order to win. This showed the same attitude toward workers that we critiqued at the MHI meeting, “Is it true that ‘People are Not Ready for Socialism?’”, where we concluded not only that workers are not “backward,” but that the left’s vanguardism, not workers’ consciousness, is holding back revolutionary development.
We returned to a small picket line in front of Con Ed on the day before the tentative settlement, well into the third week of the lockout. We found the workers discouraged but defiant. “If we don’t take a stand now,” one said, “there will be nothing for our kids.” The older workers worried about the younger ones who would lose their pensions if the union gave in to the company’s demand to eliminate the pension system for recent and new hires. “People who came to the job in the last few years thought they would have a pension, but now they’ll have nothing,” we were told.
The picketing workers thought that a blackout was overdue, considering the heat wave and lack of trained workers capable of preventing or repairing a collapse of the grid. One worker’s wife responded to this talk by her husband and his co-workers, “I’m not surprised. In all the overtime you worked all those years, when you were never home, you upgraded the wiring, and now it’s that work that is keeping the system going.”
$16 a Week Dues Gets You Water
The workers continued to criticize the union leadership. A field worker answered our query, “Why don’t we have a strike fund? Ask the union! We pay $16 a week in dues and get nothing except tubs of bottled water out here on the picket line. And we’re not informed what’s going on.” He continued, “The company and union were negotiating for months before the contract expired, and have continued meeting ever since. The company started to train management to do our jobs three months before the lockout. It’s clear they were preparing for a lock out, and the union was not prepared to do anything.”
Two young office workers were surprised when we asked them why there was no strike fund. They were unaware that such a thing exists in other unions, and they knew almost nothing of the history and past benefits of unionization. After we spoke a while, the young woman thought the union should offer classes in labor history. We will be interested to see whether the lockout experience gives the workers the courage to challenge the entrenched union leadership.
The picketers said Con Ed was bringing scab workers from as far away as Texas, and was requiring managers to do union workers’ jobs. We overheard two managers complaining to each other that they had worked nine days in a row, had just 24 hours off, and then had to work another nine days without a day off.
Picketers also told us that managers who were doing their jobs had a number of accidents. In the first two weeks of the lockout, two managers suffered burns and one had a heart attack. Con Ed claimed that current conditions were to blame, a worker said, but when union workers get hurt, Con Ed always blames the accident on the individual worker.
–Mike and Anne