National Grid, Unions Have Tentative Agreement After Lockout

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( Grid)

BOSTON (AP/WBZ-AM) — National Grid and union representatives reached a tentative agreement to end a bitter contract dispute that has left about 1,200 natural gas employees locked out for months in Massachusetts, according to both sides.

The utility and two United Steelworkers locals announced the deal in a brief, joint statement late Wednesday night following intense negotiations and increasing concern among state officials who had pressured National Grid to end the lockout.

National Grid's Christine Milligan told WBZ NewsRadio what will happen next.

"The two unions will present the terms of the agreement to their members for ratification," Milligan said. "We expect that to happen on or before January 7, and until that happens, we won't be sharing any further details of the agreement."

In a hint of potential progress toward a settlement, the company and the unions indicated in a previous joint statement that it had agreed to a "firm schedule" for bargaining with the intention of reaching an agreement by last Friday, though that deadline was missed by several days.

The workers, including those who maintain natural gas infrastructure in National Grid's eastern Massachusetts service area, were locked out by the utility in July after a previous collective bargaining agreement expired. National Grid also serves customers in Rhode Island and New York, but workers in those states were not affected.

The company said its proposals to shift certain health insurance costs to employees and replace pensions with 401(k) plans for newly hired workers had been among the major sticking points.

Demands by public officials to resolve the dispute intensified following a series of natural gas explosions and fires that rocked three Merrimack Valley communities on Sept. 13, leaving one person dead, 25 others injured, and dozens of homes and buildings damaged or destroyed. The disaster involved a different utility, Columbia Gas, yet heightened safety concerns about the National Grid network operating without hundreds of its most experienced maintenance workers.

The state Department of Public Utilities ordered a halt on nonemergency natural gas work performed by National Grid in October after a pressurization mishap during routine maintenance interrupted service to hundreds of homes in Woburn. No injuries were reported.

Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo was among those who had publicly demanded an end to the lockout, citing safety issues and the toll the impasse taking on the workers and their families.

"The focus needs to be on the damage this lockout has caused the Commonwealth: The public safety concerns, the cost, and especially the harm that is being done to these families is unacceptable," DeLeo said last month in calling for "around the clock negotiations" between the two sides.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker later signed a bill approved by lawmakers that would extend unemployment benefits that were set to expire for the workers later this month, absent a settlement. The governor had also called for a swift end to the lockout "so that utility customers can receive the level of service and safety they deserve."

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WBZ NewsRadio's Shari Small (@ShariSmallNews) reports

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