Man on a utility pole
Jeff Cyr, Trustee, UWUA Local 470-1, on the job. Credit: Contributed photo / UWUA Local 470-1

If I told you I have followed this year’s UI rate case more than in previous years, it would be an understatement. For 20 years, I have been a lineworker on United Illuminating’s Overhead Line Crew, and I’m a proud Trustee of the union to which we all belong, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 470-1. But to be honest, in past years, I didn’t concern myself much with the happenings in New Britain.

That all changed this year, when PURA slammed into the workers’ world with proposed policies that would have major consequences for my colleagues and me, including cuts in training and compensation, reducing UI’s request for additional headcount, and cuts in capital investments that hamstring our ability to serve our customers well.

We were successful in convincing PURA to reverse or moderate some of these policies, although we remain concerned the final decision’s hits to the financial health of UI will have consequences for us, too.

But I continue to be disturbed by the tenor of some in government and the media when the conversation turns to how we engaged in the rate case process. The fact is, Connecticut is strengthened when workers across the state make our voices heard, particularly when the outcome will directly affect us and our livelihood.

This came into clear view last week when Lisa Wexler interviewed PURA Chair Marissa Gillett on her radio show. Wexler made her views of UI workers clear, saying, “the rank and file of UI – the union people … got a little ugly and angry” in our “protests” of PURA’s draft decision. She also accused us of “excoriating [Chair Gillett’s] name in the press.”

I can only assume Ms. Wexler is referring to the UI Employee Rally on August 11, but where she got the idea that we were “ugly and angry,” or that we ever spoke about Chair Gillett personally, is a mystery that troubles me. Anyone who attended, myself included, could have told her that the 160 of us who spent an hour in PURA’s courtyard didn’t chant, picket, or protest. We made our statement to PURA with our presence alone, and we were exclusively focused on the draft decision. For Ms. Wexler to insinuate that we – the employees of UI, many of us union members – were threatening is frankly hurtful and offensive to my colleagues and me.

State officials have tread more carefully, apparently recognizing that without our commitment to power reliability on nights, weekends, and holidays, in blazing heat and freezing cold, their jobs would be all but impossible. But their actions don’t align with their words.

On Ms. Wexler’s show, Chair Gillett had nice words to say about us, opining, “the lineworkers – the men and women who do that job – are some of the most underappreciated, undervalued members of our society.” Yet the agency Chair Gillett oversees called the police, decked out with vests and sidearms, on the peaceful August 11 gathering of those undervalued lineworkers and our colleagues.

Senator Norm Needleman, too, had only kind things to say when my colleague Moses Rams and I attended a press conference he hosted on UI’s rate case. “No disrespect meant. Frankly, you’re the guys I’m here for,” he told us. Yet 10 minutes before, he and his colleagues – Representative Jonathan Steinberg, Attorney General William Tong, and others – had derisively told all of us at UI to “knock it off” when it comes to talking publicly about these issues and their impacts.

Chair Gillet, Attorney General Tong, and legislative leadership might have insisted they weren’t trying to shut us up – their stated goals have always been to target UI’s management, not its front-line. But as we said at the rally on August 11, “We are UI!” When state officials see union employees gathered in New Britain and tell UI to “knock it off,” when their friends in radio call us “ugly and angry,” they’re telling front-line union workers to sit down; be quiet; they don’t want to hear from us.

I don’t think that’s good for Connecticut’s ratemaking process or, frankly, its democracy. State officials should be encouraging UI’s employees to be making their voices heard, even when we disagree.

Jeff Cyr has been a member of United Ulliminating’s Overhead Line Crew for 20 years. He is a Trustee of UWUA Local 470-1.

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