WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
As Consolidated Edison labor talks continue, the union that represents the utility’s locked out workers is asking a state agency to investigate the impact the lock out is having on services.
In a motion filed with the state's Public Service Commission, which regulates Con Ed, the union charged the continued lock out of the skilled workforce had created significant "safety and reliability hazards." Specifically, the papers cited the company's deferring of transformer and manhole inspections, which are critical to spotting potential problems before they impact service.
Since the lockout began on July 1, Con Ed has been operating with approximately 5,000 managers handling service maintenance and emergencies operations usually handled by members of Local 1 -2 of the Utility Workers of America. The utility reports that four of those management fill ins suffered work related injuries but that the system continues to operate effectively and safely.
"Consolidated Edison has obligations under law to provide safe, reliable and adequate service to the public for which they are compensated," said Scott Strauss, counsel for the union. "We have a concern that with the lockout situation and the workforce that Con Edison has put in place of its skilled and experience workforce we don't think they are able to live up to that obligation."
On Waverly place in Greenwich Village, a crew of 10 Con Ed mangers in blue jumpsuits worked outside the popular Italian restaurant Babbo Friday afternoon.
Wiping off the sweat, Michael Baratta climbed out of a manhole after splicing cables to repair the eateries’ low voltage problem. The 42-year-old has worked for the company a little over half his life and has been in management for 11 years.
He said the heat and long hours were taking their toll but believed the risks were minimal since workers are being careful. “For some people it’s been a few years (since they were in the field) but we all went for a refresher training prior to the contingency.”
Baratta admits everyone will be relieved when an agreement is made. “A lot of these guys I worked with together side by side, I feel for them…everybody is going to be happy when this is settled.”
The union is asking the PSC to end the lockout so the union's rank and file can return to work.
Con Ed has until Tuesday to respond. In a press statement Con Ed dismissed concerns about the capability of its managerial work force to keep the system running.
"Our management employees are all trained and experienced for the jobs they are doing. From splicing cable, working in substations to handling customer inquiries and other functions, our management workforce is ready. Between management employees and contractors, we are able to fill our staffing needs for emergency calls and outages,” the statement read.
A spokesman for the PSC said he did not know of any precedent for the state utility regulator to weigh in on a labor dispute, but said the independent commission would review the union's motion and the utility's response.
The continued labor standoff comes as temperatures are expected to climb back into the 90s over the weekend.
A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city's Office of Emergency Management is monitoring the situation on a 24-7 basis. The city has contingency plans to reduce its demand on the Con Ed power supply by opting to pull its DEP waste water treatment plants off line that have their own back up generators.
As for the negotiations, both sides remain divided on how they are progressing. The union describes it as "bogged down," while, management describes it as "ongoing."
Negotiations are expected to resume Saturday afternoon. Federal mediators have been facilitating the talks since April.