Lawmaker Compares National Grid Lockout of Steelworkers Over Benefits To Taxation Without Representation — Beacon Hill Recap

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By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

Two hundred and forty-five years ago this month, the Sons of Liberty boarded British ships and threw chests of tea into the harbor to protest taxes.

At the moment, animosity toward National Grid over its lockout of 1,200 union gas workers has not quite reached Townshend Acts proportions, but Beacon Hill is still talking about “sending a message across the Atlantic” over how the British utility is treating its workers in the colony.

“The last time we were told what to do by British nobility was 1776 and I don’t think we should allow that to happen anymore,” said state Senator Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat, who accused National Grid of taking a “Machiavellian approach” to contract negotiations with two United Steelworkers locals.

Collins’s call to arms came during an hours-long hearing on Wednesday at the Massachusetts State House where unions gas workers and members of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee raked National Grid executives over the coals over the 164-day lockout of their gas workers.

He was particularly piqued by the idea that a British company, whose board is chaired by a knight, could strip workers in his district of health insurance and salary. “We have a British noble that’s telling us in Massachusetts how we are going to have our people treated. That’s unacceptable. This isn’t a domestic dispute among Americans,” Collins said.

National Grid’s state-based president Marcy Reed insisted that she, and no one else, was calling the shots, but she found little sympathy for the company’s position.

After years of kicking the can, Reed said, National Grid had little choice but to resort to the lockout to extract pension and health care concessions from the Steelworkers that other unions had already agreed to with the company.

The National Grid punching party was just one of many things to shock the State House back to life this week. The building was enlivened by holiday celebrations, choirs on the Grand Staircase, and farewells from departing lawmakers who reflected on the good (and bad) and of their careers in the Legislature.

The lame-duck legislating season even got interesting again.

As lawmakers were gearing up for the hearing on a state Representative Jim O’Day (D-West Boylston) bill to force National Grid to restore health insurance benefits for the duration of the labor dispute, House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) started the process of moving another bill to create an unemployment benefit program for locked-out workers, to be paid for by the employers and to kick in after traditional unemployment insurance benefits expire.

Even though a majority of senators signed a letter on November 1 expressing support for extended benefits, Senate leaders have not said if they will take up the bill that passed the House on Thursday, December 6. Governor Charlie Baker said he’s open to the idea, if not completely sold on the details.

The House’s actions dovetailed perfectly with U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III’s whole “moral capitalism” theme of recent weeks, and even prompted him to weigh in on the state-level legislative push.

“Weaponizing critical worker benefits to gain contract concessions has become a too common and toxic corporate practice,” Kennedy (D-Brookline) said. “National Grid chose to lock out their workers, at great expense to the impacted employees, their families, and our entire Commonwealth. While that choice is theirs to make, they should be held financially accountable for its impact.”

While union workers were sharing heartbreaking stories of struggling to pay for their children’s health care or college tuition, two floors above them retiring and defeated House lawmakers were saying their goodbyes.

The farewell speeches followed mostly familiar scripts, but state Representative Cory Atkins of Concord had tongues wagging over her willingness to challenge leadership on her way out the door. Atkins, a Democrat, criticized DeLeo’s leadership style as autocratic, and expressed disappointment in her fellow women legislators in leadership who, she said, participated in the silencing of Senator-elect Diana DiZoglio when the Methuen lawmaker tried to share her story of harassment.

Not everyone agreed with Atkins’s assessment of House culture.

“You and I have not always agreed, indeed we have frequently disagreed on taxes in particular, the very subject you asked me to address. And yet, despite our differences and despite the fact that some of your team members could not understand why you stuck with me, you did,” said retiring state Representative Jay Kaufman of Lexington, a liberal Democrat who for years chaired the Revenue Committee, an assignment given to him by DeLeo.

The National Grid hearing and Atkins’s speech weren’t the only things to sour the holiday mood around the State House. In fact, economists invited to prognosticate on the future of state tax collections were downright Grinch-like.

“While the time and severity of the next economic downturn is unknowable, by historic markers, we are on borrowed time,” Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Eileen McAnneny told the House and Senate Ways and Means committees at this year’s consensus revenue hearing.

McAnneny was not alone in predicting an economic slowdown on the horizon as state budget writers cautioned to keep squirreling away cash in the rainy day fund.

State Department of Revenue commissioner Christopher Harding did tell lawmakers that he was not predicting a recession for fiscal year 2020, which starts in July, but the days of economic expansion north of 6 percent seem to be coming to an end.

Deval Patrick’s presidential aspirations also came to an end with the former governor announcing his decision to forgo a 2020 campaign because of the “cruelty of our elections.” With the two-term Democratic governor out of the mix, U.S. Elizabeth Warren (D-Cambridge) could have Massachusetts and its political talent to herself, but polls, and now the Boston Globe, are suggesting maybe the Senate is where she should stay.

The Globe editorialized that Warren may have missed her moment in 2016 to run for the White House, and has become perhaps a too polarizing figure for the times.

The 2020 campaign has been gathering steam quickly after the midterms, but Washington paused from its partisanship on Wednesday to remember the country’s 41st president George Herbert Walker Bush.

Baker was among the governors in attendance at the state funeral at Washington National Cathedral, and while he was away new Public Safety Secretary Tom Turco took his oath of office. The governor tapped Turco, who had been the commissioner of the Department of Correction, to replace Daniel Bennett, the first member of Baker’s cabinet to leave after Baker’s re-election last month to explore private sector opportunities.

Senate Clerk William Welch is also planning to call it quits, announcing that he is preparing to retire before the start of the next two-year session, ending a 45-year career in the Senate clerk’s office, including 15 as clerk.

Unlike Welch, Sal DiMasi did not have the luxury of leaving Beacon Hill totally on his own terms. But he did return to it this week of his own free will.

Two years after his compassionate release from federal prison, DiMasi resurfaced at the State House to take in some of the farewell speeches and gave his first sit-down interview the next night on WGBH’s Greater Boston.

DiMasi said his cancer is now in remission, and he looks forward to advocating for the better treatment of prisoners in his post-incarceration life.

But as for the corruption charges that landed him there? It’s complicated, he said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The gang got back together, but it wasn’t all carols and egg nog.

SONG OF THE WEEK: Pete Shelley, 63.