(Updated with video at 6:05 p.m.)Rallying on the steps of the state Capitol Monday, Connecticut Light & Power lineworkers called on the utility company to increase its staffing levels, and they found no shortage of support among some of the state’s elected officials.
The rally, organized by two International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers locals, comes as the unions are amidst negotiations with the company over contracts which expired in June. The number of trained lineworkers—a number that has dropped over the years—has long been a point of contention for the unions.
But the issue became a prominent one last year after severe storms twice left much of the state without electricity for over a week. Following the storms CL&P relied heavily on out-of-state work crews, some of whom were slow to arrive in Connecticut.
The unions allege the company allowed its in-house staffing levels to dwindle in an effort to increase profits. It’s an issue they raised again after Tropical Storm Irene last year and after falling on deaf ears, the issue seems to have gained more political support.
John Fernandes, assistant business manager of IBEW Local 457, said in 1976, there was roughly one lineworker for 2,000 utility customers. Today there’s only one for every 9,120 customers, he said.
“We all know where the money went. In 1989 the salary for a [CL&P parent company, Northeast Utilities] CEO was $400,000. Last year [NU CEO] Tom May pocketed over $9 million as well as all the stocks he took with him,” Fernandes said, drawing “boos” from the lineworkers.
In response to the rally, Northeast Utility Media Relations Director Caroline Pretyman said the union was protesting CL&P’s contract offer to increase wages and add 30 line jobs.
“We think it’s unfortunate that the union leadership is attempting to use the media to distort the facts and mask the real issues. We greatly value the hard work of our employees and we find the union leadership’s tactics unprofessional,” Pretyman said.
She said the contract negotiations were largely held up over employee contributions to their medical plans and antiquated work rules previously negotiated by the unions. CL&P would like to see a number of scheduling rules eliminated, she said.
For instance, the rules dictate that line workers work morning, not afternoon shifts, despite statistics showing that most power outages occur in the afternoon or evening, Pretyman said.
“Clearly, this limits our ability to respond when our customers need us most. Just as police officers, fire fighters, and other utility workers are scheduled for both day shifts and afternoon shifts, we need that flexibility to serve our customers and the public,” she said.
Frank Cirillo, assistant business manager for IBEW Local 420, called the company’s response “totally untrue.”
“I’ve never heard something more ridiculous in my life,” Cirillo said before the rally.
As late as 2005, the utility had 24 hour-a-day coverage but the company put an end to it because it no longer had enough people, Cirillo said.
“They have the flexibility to do what they want now, they just don’t know how to do. My opinion is they’re incompetent,” he said.
CL&P maintains that its staffing levels are consistent with other leading utility companies. Pretyman said that whatever downsizing that’s occurred has been a result of Northeast Utilities merger with NSTAR, a process that has been monitored by regulators.
But more than one person at the rally called on the regulators at the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to step in and demand utility companies hire more linemen. According to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Dennis Schain, PURA does have regulatory authority to review staffing levels and it was an issue discussed in a recent storm docket. When it comes to telecommunications companies such as AT&T, deregulation limited the jurisdiction of state utility authorities. As a result, PURA’s ability to consider issues like staffing levels is very limited.
William Henderson, president of the Communication Workers of America, his union wants PURA to tell AT&T and CL&P and any other “greedy bastards” that they’re going increase the number of line and pole workers to improve customer service.
Henderson said his local is in a similar predicament as the IBEW.
“The issues we experienced during the storm were the same, and AT&T came out worse than CL&P,” Henderson said. “There just wasn’t enough media attention to the issues.“
Henderson represents about 107 AT&T line workers, which is about one-third fewer than the company had just four years ago.
“The want to maximize profit at the expense of the workers,” he said.
“We had 1,400 poles come down during storm Irene, this wasn’t a hurricane, this was a tropical storm that came through our state,” Henderson said. “This is unacceptable.”
Representatives of several members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation and a handful of state lawmakers were on hand Monday to offer their support.
House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey said the utilities did not have enough people on the ground to deal with the storms last year.
“It’s clear: what we need more than anything is more line people on the staff, on the job, on the ground, making sure that our rate payers are getting what they’re paying for,” he said.
Sharkey said that while Northeast Utilities was lobbying support for its NSTAR merger, lawmakers were told Connecticut would continue to be a priority, even with corporate headquarters in Massachusetts.
“Here we are, the first opportunity for NSTAR, through CL&P, to demonstrate their commitment to the state of Connecticut and what is happening? They’re falling down,” Sharkey said.
Members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation including staffers from U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, John Larson, and Chris Murphy’s office and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s office attended the rally and read letters of support.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report