Con Ed Talks to Resume Thursday as Union Pickets

Replacement workers lack the expertise to cope with the demands of a heat wave, union spokesman warns

Unionized workers with Consolidated Edison in the city were picketing outside the utility's Manhattan headquarters Monday, as both sides planned to resume negotiations on Thursday, following failed contract talks and a lockout.

About 200 union members were outside Con Ed's Manhattan headquarters, eliciting cheers, whistles and honks from drivers passing by. Many union members wore T-shirts reading, "If we go out, the lights go out," with a cracked, yellow lightbulk with a red circle around it.

Meanwhile, a union spokesman warned that their replacements don't have the expertise to cope with the demands of a heat wave.

Negotiations stopped just before 2 a.m. Sunday, a couple of hours after the existing contract expired. The impasse came as New York braced for more high temperatures that will increase demand for air conditioning among the utility's 3.2 million customers. 

Both sides said there are many issues on which they have not reached agreement.

There were about 200 outages overnight, nearly all of which were resolved by morning, Con Ed spokesman Chris Olert said Monday. He said management personnel were standing by, ready to address any problems. 

Con Ed closed walk-in centers, suspended meter readings and limited work on major construction projects in New York after the talks broke down. 

On Sunday morning, police set up barricades in front of Con Ed's headquarters near Union Square. 

"This is crazy! There's a heat wave," said David Palomino, a facility mechanic who rushed to headquarters after finishing his early shift to find out what was coming next. He was one of few workers there; a union official said more picketing was planned for Monday. 

"The fight has escalated" between the two sides, Palomino said, explaining that workers fear losing chunks of their pensions and benefits. 

The 8,500 unionized workers told the company they'd be willing to work without a contract to keep the power company running, said John Melia, spokesman for Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers of America. 

"We did everything to avert this action," he said. "We recognize that New York City is sweltering right now. ... We recognize we have a responsibility to the people of New York City and Westchester County," the suburban county north of the city. 

He disputed the company's claim that its managers could do the job of the union workers. 

"They know what happens in a heat wave, they know they don't have the expertise to fix it," he said. "They don't have the technical knowledge."

Temperatures were in the 90s Sunday and were expected to be in the high 80s and low 90s throughout the week. 

The extreme weather included vicious storms from Indiana to New Jersey and south to Virginia that left 17 people dead and 2.7 million without power. Most of the damage came in the mid-Atlantic region, and only scattered outages across Con Ed's service area in New York were reported as of Sunday. Con Ed said it is keeping a close watch on its system and has trained managers working on essential operations. 

Con Ed said it had wanted a two-week extension of the current contract while negotiations continued, with assurance that the union would not strike without notice. The company said it offered such an extension, signing an agreement to that effect, but that the union didn't sign it. Con Ed said if the union agreed to the extension, employees would be welcomed back. 

Negotiations lasted just over 10 days over a range of issues, including pensions, heath care and wages. 

"This is very unfortunate. Both sides are very far" apart, said Con Ed spokesman Michael Clendenin. 

Melia said the union negotiators were kicked out of the room in what he called a "union-busting tactic." 

"This is not a labor issue," he said. "This is a corporate monopoly." 

He said the two sides had been talking when the company demanded the union sign the contract extension, and that Con Ed locked workers out when the union said it preferred to keep talking and keep workers at the jobs without a contract in the interim. 

Frank Allen is making sure the heat doesn't blow his power at home in upper Manhattan. "I turn off the air conditioner when I leave home," said Allen, 61, who was shopping in the Union Square neighborhood. 

"It's not too good when the wires go out, and there's no one to fix them, Allen said. "The workers should get whatever they deserve — just do it for us, Con Ed." 

He has cats at home, but he's not worried leaving them without air conditioning. "They find their way to some cool corner." 

And when he goes to work, heat is far from a problem: Allen works in a 33-degree space, in the refrigeration unit of the Fresh Direct food delivery company in Queens' Long Island City. 

"In a heat wave, I wear long johns." 

At an electronics and air conditioning retailer across the street from Con Ed, manager Ramon Nieves said there have been multiple power outages in recent years in his Queens neighborhood.

He said his store sold about 35 percent more air conditioners this month than in the same, cooler period last year.

 "I'm mad at Con Ed — what are they thinking?" he said. "A lot of people could get sick in this heat."

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