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Public Perception Weighs Heavily on Con Ed Lock Out

Public Perception Weighs Heavily on Con Ed Lock Out

July 24, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
The lock out of 8,500 members of Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union of America by Con Edison has entered its fourth week. The union will join the rally tomorrow, July 24 to show solidarity with low-wage workers as it continues to wage its own struggle for a new contract. LaborPress recently spoke with Ken Margolies, senior associate at the Worker Institute at the ILR School of Cornell University, who’s been following the lock out closely.

According to Margolies, Con Edison is taking a page out of the playbook of U.S.-based corporations who are playing hardball by demanding steep givebacks or concessions from their unionized workforces.

“Generally, labor relations among public utilities have been fairly cooperative because it’s an industry where labor costs are passed on. I don’t know if Con Edison made a calculation that they want to make even more profit or they think things are going to change where it will be harder to pass on those costs. But this is definitely a departure from the past.”

Margolies is not surprised by the trend, where one industry after another, management has decided the rules have changed and they’ve become more aggressive in bargaining and taking action against labor unions. But he believes that in the public utility space, Con Edison might be pioneering a lock out of its workforce.

“It’s possible that because this is not the way the company acted in the past and it’s not common among utilities [locking out workers], they may have surprised the union,” said Margolies.

In order for the lock out to end Margolies believes that other unions have to continue to support Local 1-2 and that politicians have to use their influence to bring about a resolution. So far, multiple city politicians have called on Con Edison to end the lockout, including Comptroller John Liu, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Christine Quinn. But so far their calls have gone unheard.

On the question of whether the union can stop scab contractors from doing their work, Margolies said, “If they could stop them, that’d be an important strategy for the union to pursue, but the union is limited legally to stop them.”

But a big concern for the union, noted Margolies, is public perception. Anytime the public is directly affected by a labor dispute, they tend to perceive the union negatively, especially if the dispute, and consequently, service interruption goes on for a long time.

If the local were, for example, to engage in non-violent civil disobedience by sitting in the path of trucks going in and out of Con Ed facilities to stop the scabs it would slow down Con Ed’s ability to maintain the system.

“But public perception can go either way—the public might see the action as reasonable to protect their jobs or they might view the union as blocking maintenance of the system which could lead to power outages. So that type of action would have to be combined with some campaign to influence the public. But if things got out of hand, resulting in violence or sabotage, it almost certainly would make the union look bad.”

According to Margolies, the union has done a good job in informing the public of how profitable is the company and the exorbitant pay top executives are earning, but he thinks the union can do more to get the message out that the public is essentially subsidizing the lockout because the locked out union members are receiving unemployment insurance.

Con Ed is a public utility, so it can’t entirely ignore the public interest or politicians’ calls.

“But this is complicated by the fact that Governor Andrew Cuomo demanded similar concessions from state workers, except that Con Ed is a profitable company and the state was in financial trouble. Con Ed can say to Cuomo, ‘You did it, so what are you talking about?’”

Any outcome is possible, but as the union has been resisting changes to its defined benefit pension plan and the company insists on replacing it with a 401k plan, it is possible that the union might have to concede on this issue in order to get its members back to work.  

“That’s possible, but that kind of agreement [the union agreeing to a two-tier pension plan] has always proven to be divisive for unions because as new workers work alongside their older counterparts they begin to feel resentment as they are doing the same work for less benefits. That’s why any union should resist something like that as much as they can.”

Conceding on the pension issue would be a race to the bottom, Margolies warned.

“The Social Security Administration is concerned that baby boomers will have less income for retirement than previous generations because there are so few pension plans remaining, which will have a ripple effect on the whole economy.”

Margolies sees the current struggle between Local 1-2 and Con Ed as a test for the rest of New York’s labor movement.

“New York is still more of a union town than most cities, but this is somewhat of a test to show that some things that are happening across the country can’t happen here.

“The average working person in New York has more at stake here than they realize because if there are concessions, it just makes it harder for everyone else to make a living,” Margolies said. 

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