Michelle Harvey tearfully recounted her toddler's fight with cancer, which came at the same time her husband Brian (right) was locked out of his job at National Grid. [Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS]

Dozens of National Grid gas workers shared personal stories with lawmakers Tuesday as the Massachusetts legislature weighs how deeply to get involved in a lengthy labor dispute between National Grid and United Steel Workers Locals 12012 and 12003.

National Grid locked out the gas workers in late June after several years of giving contract extensions that didn’t yield any concessions on health care or pensions for new employees. Legislators, however, have grown increasingly impatient with the impasse, have largely sided with the workers over the utility, and are now actively considering legislative relief for locked out workers. The lockout and state regulators’ related moratorium on non-emergency work by National Grid contractors and managers have hobbled many residential and commercial construction projects, which need gas hookups to obtain certificates of occupancy.

“I believe National Grid should be ashamed of itself,” Sen. Marc Pacheco told the company’s Massachusetts president Marcy Reed.

As gas workers argued for legislation to restore their health benefits during contract talks, House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Tuesday started to move a bill that calls for the state labor and workforce development secretary to establish “a benefit program for any individual who is involuntarily unemployed during the period of the negotiation of a collective bargaining contract because of an employer’s lockout.” Under the bill, all program costs will be assessed on the employer who has locked out their employees, and the bill precludes an employer from passing on the costs of the program to ratepayers.

The legislature is in informal sessions until early January; any member can stop a bill and debate is not allowed.

DeLeo called the lockout “reckless” and “appalling” in a statement Tuesday, and criticized National Grid for making the state bear the cost of the lockout through unemployment benefits. Benefits for many locked out workers are scheduled to expire on Jan. 14, according to the unions.

While the bill advanced in the House, it did not make it over to the Senate. House Minority Leader Brad Jones threw the brakes on late in the afternoon after, his spokesman said, members of the Republican caucus had questions about “whether or not it might be setting a precedent.”

Jones’s office did not say how long the minority leader might seek to hold up the bill, saying Republicans want questions answered before allowing the bill to move forward.

Senate President Karen Spilka’s office also did not commit to taking up the bill this month, stating through a spokeswoman, “The Senate is very concerned about the negative impacts of the ongoing National Grid lockout for families, businesses and the safety of our communities. We continue to monitor this situation and evaluate all available options.”

National Grid Lockout Bill Advances on Beacon Hill

by State House News Service time to read: 2 min