On June 30th, Consolidated Edison’s (Con Ed) contract with Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) expired. After the union leaders failed to come to an agreement with Con Ed management, citing Con Ed’s plan to turn their pensions into 401ks and provide the workers with fewer benefits as their reasons for ending the talks, the workers were locked out and began protesting.
Let me start by explaining that, though it is common for the actions of union leaders to range from thoughtless to deplorable, the attitude of the Local 1-2 leaders is extremely selfish, irresponsible, and on the verge of criminal. New York City is being pounded by heat waves, meaning that air conditioning usage is going to increase. And because the workers have decided to strike, if something happens to go wrong, elderly citizens will now be at risk due to the heat and Con Ed managers may be injured trying to fix the problem.
Just to highlight the potential severity of the union’s actions, let’s look at what occurred earlier this week along the East Coast. After storms knocked out power in Maryland, three heat related deaths were reported, with two of the victims being 65 or older. The union leadership should have accepted Con Ed’s terms since many New Yorkers may be facing heat stroke and heat exhaustion if power is lost due to the current heat wave. Furthermore, the 5,000 Con Ed managers running operations and responding to emergencies in the workers’ stead have been put in danger by the union. On Monday, one manager was burned in a substation fire in Bensonhurst and another was injured Wednesday in a manhole explosion on the Upper West Side. Union spokesman John Melia tried to shift the blame to the company, stating, “They’re going to kill somebody,” after hearing about the manhole explosion, but the UWUA is the real culprit.
As for the criminal aspect I mentioned above, I was referencing a very stupid statement posted on the Occupy Support for UWUA Local 1-2 Facebook page, which appears to be controlled by a UWUA member. Most people understand that overworked generators and overloaded transmission lines can lead to blackouts or brownouts. In fact, Con Ed caused a brownout Wednesday night, by deliberately decreasing the voltage in several Brooklyn neighborhoods in an effort to reduce the strain on the grid. A utility worker would most definitely know this, yet someone claiming to be a UWUA member posted this, “Starting July 5th, show support for UWUA local 1-2 by turning on all your electricity for Five minutes at 6pm every day.” It has since been taken down, but it was very irresponsible to post in the first place and could have had dire consequences.
Union leaders have also hurt their own in their pursuit of a strong-armed victory. Con Ed offered to extend the workers’ old contract through July, thus providing them with continued health coverage, but the union leaders prohibited this. The union members should be upset at their leadership for the loss of their health benefits, but many are too blind and instead blame the company for the union’s own actions.
I am now going to address the unfair criticism Con Ed has received for its treatment of the workers. On the surface, it would seem that Con Ed is just a big, greedy corporation looking to make a profit. Beneath the surface, well, it actually looks just about the same. Con Ed is, after all, a corporation and the main function of a corporation is to return profits, preferably large ones, to its owners. Because Con Ed is public, it is constantly faced with a duty to its shareholders. It therefore needs to ensure that its stock continues to increase in value. Con Ed already increased its rates by 10% in 2010 due to labor costs and the high price of maintaining its underground distribution system. With its stocks dipping over the past few months it is no wonder Con Ed tried to get a better deal with the new contracts. This may seem unfair to the workers, but it is understandable from a business perspective.
The union members claim the deaths of any elderly citizens due to heat will be on the company’s hands, but I don’t see it that way. Even if Con Ed was bullying the workers, they should still submit to the company in order to prevent the dozens of injuries that have happened and might still happen. But Local 1-2 executive board member Salvatore Guercio made his union’s intentions very clear when he said, “We’re gonna do whatever it takes until we get a good contract.” They could have accepted the offer they were provided with, but they chose to take New York hostage instead. To union officials, winning disputes over pensions and benefits packages is more important than the lives of the people of New York City.
Adam Ondo | University of Rochester | @JoplinMaverick