September 18 2018

Selectmen Place Moratorium on all Non-Emergency National Grid Work Amidst Employee Lockout

By: Rich Hosford

National Grid will not be able to do routine gas work in Burlington for the foreseeable future as the company grapples with a worker lockout and a breakdown of talks with its worker unions.


On Monday the Board of Selectmen voted 5-0 in favor of a moratorium on non-emergency work by the company.


The worker lockout of the company’s roughly 1,100 gas workers began in June after contract negotiations with the unions broke down. Since that time National Grid has been using temporary employees and contractors.


During the August 13 Board of Selectmen meeting Pat O’Halloran of Steelworkers Union Local 12012/4 spoke during citizen’s time to raise concerns held by many union members. He contested that the fill-in employees working on the gas lines lacked the experience for the potentially dangerous work and that the company was unable at the time to provide the necessary oversight and supervision.


O’Halloran further argued that proper experience was vital in a community like Burlington that has a gas system with relatively high normal-operating pressure of 60 pounds.


“You don’t just start working in Burlington and think you’re going to fix a leak and do some kind of cutoff,” he said. “It takes years of working with people who are more experienced.”


During that meeting the board said they wanted to take more time to investigate the issue. This week, with both further research and the backdrop of the gas explosions that wounded dozens and killed on man in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, they were ready to move forward.


“I think what came out of the conversation is the realization that it is very important for us to know who is doing what kind of work,” Board Chairman Chris Hartling said. “What we saw in another community last week in terms of a dangerous situation sort of put an exclamation point on what we heard. We do want to pay attention to the work being done in town, whether it’s natural gas, or water, or electricity or anything like that.”


Hartling also stressed that while the situation in Merrimack Valley may have emphasized the need for greater control over who does work in town, the discussion started before that incident and the item was placed on the agenda prior to the incident.


“We took some time to do homework,” he said.


With the vote all non-emergency work by National Grid is suspended. Initially some board members said they were concerned about residents and businesses not being able to get necessary work completed but O’Halloran argued the current backlog of work created by the lockout would make it unlikely anyone would get a crew for a construction project.


Burlington is not the first to pass such a moratorium. In late August, Billerica signed onto one and Stoneham and Melrose recently passed similar action. In total, O’Halloran estimated roughly 25 communities have passed moratoriums.


“I’m happy they chose that route,” he said of Burlington’s selectmen in an interview on Tuesday.


He added that though the situation in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover were not under National Grid he said there are lessons to learn from it.


“What happened in Lawrence was a lack of supervision and lack of oversight and we believe that is what led to the explosions,” he said. “We know that  could happen in Burlington. We don’t want it to happen. Everyone just got a first-hand look at gas and what it can do and that’s what we’re trying to stress. It takes years of experience and training.”


Finally, we previously reached out National Grid for a story on the worker lockout and asked about the safety of ongoing projects. The company responded with the following statement:

“Our crews have been safely working on the gas lines for the past nine weeks, completing more than 12,000 jobs, including odor calls, leak repairs, damage repairs and requests for new service,” National Grid spokesman Robert Kievra said. “There is nothing more important to the company than the safety of our customers, employees and the general public. Federal law requires that our workforce is trained, qualified and able to demonstrate the skills required to operate and work on the gas system. Our continuation workforce consists of a mix of more than 600 skilled contractors and roughly 700 National Grid management employees, including supervisors who oversee union employee work. We regularly conduct appropriate reviews and investigations of our worksites, and, if any safety concerns are noted or observed, we take prompt and appropriate action – just as we do with our unionized employees.”


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