US National Grid lock-out – workers health benefits stopped!

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Locked out National Grid gas workers are demanding that they have the right to take strike action
Locked out National Grid gas workers are demanding that they have the right to take strike action

LOCKED-OUT United Steelworkers (USW) union members are blasting National Grid for stopping payment to their health care plans, but the company says it won’t give out benefits while the workers refuse to give up the ability to strike.

National Grid locked out more than 1,000 members of USW Locals 12003 and 12012 on June 25 after contract negotiations broke down, and is using managers and outside contractors to oversee complaints during the stoppage. The two sides have clashed over National Grid’s proposed changes to the company’s health care plan and benefits for new hires.

Local 12012 president John Buonopane said that the workers have not received wages, but as of July 1 are no longer getting health care through the company. He added that while the union is trying to use its emergency medical plan and register people with MassHealth, he was concerned workers without coverage may choose not to address medical issues.

Buonopane said: ‘None of this is easy on anybody, it’s a shame the company is taking a hard stand. ‘We’re hoping to eventually get everyone covered, but it’s not going to happen right away. ‘I would hate to hear of someone avoiding having treatment for an issue because they don’t have the health care right now. That’s a real possibility.’

National Grid spokesman Robert Kievra said: ‘Currently, employees in these two unions, unlike the overwhelming majority of our unionised employees in Massachusetts and other states, enjoy health insurance plans with no deductibles or coinsurance. ‘In the absence of a tentative agreement on all outstanding issues, which would include a no-strike promise, the company made the difficult decision to implement its work continuation plan to ensure uninterrupted and safe gas service for our customers until we reach a final agreement.’

USW Local 12012 president Buonopane said the health care cut was a negotiating tactic.

He said: ‘I’m definitely surprised they cut health care, especially so quick. ‘It’s definitely a bargaining position to pressure people into accepting their offer.’

The following is a joint statement from United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12003 President Joe Kirylo and USW Local 12012 President John Buonopane, whose two unions represent about 1,100 gas workers employed by National Grid in more than 85 Massachusetts cities and towns:

‘National Grid is jeopardising the safety of our communities by locking out 1,100 of its most experienced employees who are critical to ensuring safe and quality gas work in Massachusetts.

These workers not only protect and maintain key infrastructure, they repair dangerous gas leaks in dozens of cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth.

‘Rather than negotiate a fair contract that recognises the crucial services these workers provide across Massachusetts, National Grid continues to push proposals that threaten public safety and drive down wages. The proposed cuts come as National Grid seeks tens of millions of dollars from Massachusetts consumers in its upcoming rate case, and as the company received a major tax cut from the Trump Administration.

‘Despite our request to allow members to work while we continue to bargain, National Grid has refused. ‘We’re grateful for the support of residents, elected officials, labour leaders and all those who are standing with us during this reckless and irresponsible National Grid lockout. We’ll continue to fight for a contract that protects quality, middle class jobs for current and future employees, and that ensures the safety of our communities.’

Meanwhile, an article by Paul Buchheit, author, editor, expert on income inequality, published on the USW website last Saturday, said ‘deniers like Nikki Haley (US ambassador to the UN) refuse to admit that mass poverty exists in their prosperous nation. ‘That would reflect poorly on their capitalist beliefs. But if the sceptics would look at the half of America they don’t care to see, the stark display of destitution might shock them. At least until they invent an excuse to remove it all from their minds.

‘The US poverty rate in 2016 was between 12.7% and 14.0%. But the poverty threshold is based on an outmoded formula from the 1960s. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the threshold should be THREE TIMES HIGHER today. And it could be even higher if the true nature of poverty is considered. ‘There is poverty in the diminishing quality of life for Americans who are unable to pay for medical treatment during years of declining health, and instead turn to life-threatening opioid painkillers, readily available in a nation with less than 5% of the world’s population and 30% of the world’s opioid consumption. ‘Poverty is the lack of community support in a winner-take-all society; the stress of overwhelming debt; the steady decline of jobs that pay enough to support a family; the inability to afford a move to a desired neighbourhood; the deadening impact of inequality on physical and mental well-being.

‘The United Nations describes America as a nation near the bottom of the developed world in safety net support and economic mobility, with the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the highest obesity levels.

‘Low-income Americans are often surrounded by food deserts, with insufficient access to clean water and sanitation, and with the pollution levels of third-world countries. The poorest among us are even susceptible, unbelievably, to rare tropical diseases and once-eradicated scourges like hookworm.

‘Census data in 2011 showed that nearly half of Americans were in poverty or considered low-income. Since then average wealth for the poorest 50% has plummeted 27.5%, and average wealth for the poorest 40% is virtually ZERO. The median American household has less wealth in current dollars than it did 35 years ago.

‘According to CareerBuilder, three out of four American workers are living paycheck to paycheck, unable to meet any major expense in health care or home and auto repairs. Charles Schwab says three out of five Americans live paycheck to paycheck. That’s 60% to 75% of us. ‘The United Way ALICE Project has calculated that 43% of US households can’t afford a monthly budget that includes housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cell phone. The Federal Reserve concurs, estimating that 42% of US adults are experiencing a high likelihood of material hardship.

‘For every $1 in expenses twenty years ago, an American household now pays $1.25. But for every $1 earned twenty years ago, the median household still earns just $1. ‘Housing, child care, and health costs are crushing Americans. Nearly HALF of renters are cost-burdened, paying 30% or more of their income to their landlords. The median American household in most states would have to spend over 10% of its income just to send a four-year-old to full-time preschool. The employee portion of medical costs for a typical family of four averages over $12,000, or about 20% of median household income.

‘For many families, that’s 60% of their income just for housing, child care, and health costs. Many are mired in debt. The average household in the poorer half of America is anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 in credit card debt. Numerous sources report that half of Americans have little or nothing saved for retirement, and the most recent GoBankingRates survey concluded that 42% of Americans will retire with less than three months’ retirement expenses.

‘Deniers argue that few American families are really poor, because they benefit from low-income government programmes. But Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman have calculated that, on average in 2014, the 40% of American adults with incomes just below the top 10%, the middle class, received more in safety net government transfers (Medicare, Medicaid, tax credits, food stamps/SNAP, Veterans’ benefits, etc.) than the bottom 50% of Americans. ‘When Social Security is included, the richest 10% on average received approximately as much in government transfers as the poorest 50%.

Everyone benefits, thankfully, from essential government programmes. But as the UN found, the American safety net is less supportive than that of almost all other developed nations. And the richest among us somehow manage to take the greater part of benefits meant for the poor. By any rational definition of poverty, half of our country’s households are dealing with it.’