VIDEO: Selectmen Ponder Moratorium on National Grid after Striking United Steelworker Makes Pitch

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National Grid United Steelworker Jim Pittman (right) accompanied by an unidentified union member, addresses selectmen on Aug. 14. WESTFORDCAT PHOTO

National Grid United Steelworker Jim Pittman (right) accompanied by an unidentified union member, addresses selectmen on Aug. 14. WESTFORDCAT PHOTO

The lockout confronting United Steelworkers Local 12003 and 12012 is impacting Westford as selectmen mull whether to support a moratorium on National Grid Gas. [CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE VIDEO]

Union member Jim Pittman, a Westford resident, made a second appearance before selectmen on Aug. 14 to warn them of what he says are the serious dangers of allowing inexperienced people to work on gas pipes.

Bargaining negotiations between the union members and the company broke down in June after years of talks. National Grid locked out about 1,250 workers and took away their health benefits in July. The two sides are clashing over the company’s proposed changes to healthcare benefits and its proposed elimination of pensions for new hires. Workers are also seeking protection against a reduction in wages.

The lockout has put National Grid managers and subcontractors on the frontlines. Pittman is charging that the substitutes are not experienced enough to run gas lines to individual homes or businesses.

He said subcontractors handle main gas lines with oversight, but the process of running a gas line to a private home or business is always done by experienced National Grid employees.

“Our concern is the people who are going to dig those mains and the (digging) permits they’re going to be asking you for, they don’t have the experience,” he said. “It takes six years to really get the power of doing something like that…”

Pittman asserted that anyone could get a hoisting license, for example, by passing a written exam, but that doesn’t necessarily imbue them with the necessary knowledge needed to safely operate such a pulley system used for lowering and lifting equipment into a well.

“…If anyone in this room was working for National Grid Finance, for example, nine weeks ago, and they wanted to dig a gas main, tomorrow, they can go get a hoisting license and dig that T in the street…down on our gas main with the hydraulic license they’ve just got with their written exam with no experience,” he said.

Pittman, who did not return a call seeking comment, said the union workers are winning the support of cities and towns across the state.

“As they get educated, as they learn about the situation, they declare a moratorium. They grow by the day,” he said.

However, National Grid disputes the safety claims with the following statement: “There is nothing more important to National Grid than the safety of our customers, employees, and the general public. Federal law requires that our workforce is trained, qualified, and able to demonstrate the skills required to operate and work on the gas system…”

The company is also pushing back on the union negotiations, saying the 12003 and 12012 union members have health insurance plans with no deductibles or coinsurance, unlike the “overwhelming majority of our unionized employees in Massachusetts and other states.”  In a written statement, spokesman Christine Milligan said the company has offered a wage increase of 13.75 percent over five years and a Preferred Provider Organization health plan with low deductibles backed by company contributions of 80 percent of the cost.

Milligan’s statement said the company has proposed to provide newly hired employees with a defined contribution plan, funded by company contributions of 3 to 9 percent of an employee’s eligible earnings, as well as a company matching contribution to the employee’s 401K retirement plan.

Though selectmen began the hearing saying their advisors had okayed contract workers handling gas lines, they opted to look further into the safety issues and to take up the matter again on Aug. 28.

My understanding of what was involved was much more limited than what I’m hearing tonight,” said Selectman Andrea Peraner-Sweet who was chairing the board in Scott Hazelton’s absence. Selectman Elizabeth Almeida was also absent from the meeting.