A union representing utility workers called attention to their vote of no confidence in Connecticut Light & Power and Yankee Gas Monday as residents around the state braced for an expected blizzard.
“We are less prepared today than we were in 2011,” Frank Cirillo, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420, said referring to an October snowstorm that left some of the state’s residents without electricity for more than a week.
Cirillo and John Fernandes, his counterpart at IBEW Local 457, staged a press availability outside the state Capitol press room Monday morning with more than two dozen of their union members. The event had been scheduled before a blizzard was forecasted to blanket the state in heavy snow Tuesday.
The union leaders said they took the vote of no confidence, despite ratifying a contract with the utility last month, to put pressure on state utility regulators. The vote was motivated by the closure of work centers, understaffing complaints, and the utility’s use of contractors over its regular employees, they said.
Northeast Utilities, which merged with NStar back in 2012, closed its Willimantic, Middletown, Greenwich and New Milford work centers last year as part of a consolidation effort to strengthen its services, according to a spokesman.
The union leaders said the closures have forced linemen to drive further for their supplies and decreasing their ability to respond quickly to problems.
“The next move is PURA’s [the Public Utility Regulatory Authority] move,” Fernandes said. “Now is the time for them to step up to the plate and say ‘No, Northeast Utilities, we’re not going to let you close these buildings because it is going to disrupt the service.’”
The union members delivered a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office Monday morning, detailing their complaints against the utility. Malloy, who declared a state of emergency in preparation for the storm, did not accept the letter personally. It was handed to his secretary.
“We have received the petition and are reviewing the concerns within it. In the interim, the Governor is focused on preparing for this blizzard and we hope that CL&P and the IBEW Locals 420 and 457 are working together to get Connecticut through the storm,” Devon Puglia, a spokesman for Malloy, said.
During the storm briefing, Malloy said CL&P is preparing for a storm that knocks out power to about 110,000 of its customers.
Although the union scheduled the press conference last week, the impending storm conveniently underscored a message the group was trying to send. IBEW has frequently been at odds with Northeast Utilities, over staffing levels of linemen and other utility support workers.
“Nobody in this state cares until the lights go out and when the lights go out, they blame the politicians, they don’t blame the power company or they throw rocks at the line trucks,” Cirillo said. “What should anger everybody is you pay [the utility] for safe, reliable service and they’re going up on the rates” while closing facilities.
Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Northeast Utilities, issued a statement saying the utility has “made vast improvements” over the past few years. Gross called it “unfortunate” that the union leaders were focused on labor issues while the utility gears up to respond to what could be a devastating storm.
“Across NU, we are busy preparing to execute a well-rehearsed storm response for a potentially crippling and historic storm and it’s unfortunate that the union leadership doesn’t share our same focus,” he said. “. . . As first responders at this time, we are focused on public safety and the restoration of our electric system for our customers. Now, more than ever, we need to come together as a company and work as a team.”
Over the weekend, CL&P began contacting customers through robocalls to assure them the utility was prepared to respond to the Tuesday storm. The two union officials said the utility has not communicated its preparation plans with the labor group.
“Absolutely zero communication. I could not tell you what the plan is. I’m not saying they don’t have a plan but they certainly haven’t shared it with us,” Fernandes said.
Gross called the statements untrue.
“Union officials across New England were notified on Sunday as to our plans. We communicated to them—and all of our employees—that we are preparing to respond to a potentially historic and crippling storm that could severely damage our electric system and cause customer outages,” he said.