Con Ed talks stall, set to resume July 10

NEWS 12 WESTCHESTER: Aederal mediator is stepping into Con Ed contract talks. (July 5, 2012)

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Talks between Con Edison management and union leaders stalled Saturday as the lockout of 8,500 workers stretched into a seventh day.

As the contract talks went into a third day, attempts by federal mediators to keep both sides at the tables ended midday with promises to return to the tables on Tuesday.

The union took Saturday's abbreviated session as another example of the utility's unwillingness to negotiate. "We didn't meet face to face; they refused to meet with us," said John Melia, a spokesman for the 8,500-member Utility Workers Local 1-2.

Con Ed management had no comment on Saturday's talks, which are being held at the Courtyard by Marriot near LaGuardia Airport. The two sides are in separate suites while federal mediators shuttle between them. The Con Ed team began talking to the mediators around 10 a.m. Saturday, said company spokesman Alfonso Quiroz. Meanwhile, union representatives started their meeting around noon, Melia said.

The contract expired a week ago on Saturday. On Sunday, workers were locked out of their jobs after the union balked at Con Edison's suggestion to extend the contract for two weeks while negotiations continued. Negotiations resumed Thursday and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is monitoring the talks closely.

About 5,000 out of Con Edison's 14,000 managers are now out in the field, said Quiroz. On Friday, the company made a 5 percent reduction in the voltage supplied to parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx but said the move was unrelated to labor issues.

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Despite the heat wave, no problems were encountered Saturday in Westchester County. "We're just reminding customers to use their energy judiciously," Quiroz said.

While pensions and health care benefits are at the heart of the dispute, Melia said Con Edison's real goal is to break the union. The company wants to create a two-tier workforce with differing benefits and has been rebuffed by the union, Melia said.

Con Ed has also pressed to replace its defined-benefit pension plan, which offers a series of lifetime, monthly payments, with a 401K approach, which has limited benefits. The utility is asking the employees to pay more for their health care coverage in a new contract.

The lockout brought an end to health insurance for the unionized workforce. Quiroz said the benefits expired when the union declined to continue working under the terms of the expired contract, and that they can apply for coverage under COBRA.

"Nobody's got $1,500 to plop down for COBRA," said Craig Dickson, 60, a field manager from Pleasant Valley with 40 years on the job, who was one of about a dozen union workers who braved Saturday's sweltering heat to picket outside of Con Edison's Valhalla facility.

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Chris Katzmann of Salisbury Mills has stopped going to twice-weekly physical therapy for his sciatica. Despite the pain, he said he felt compelled to show support for his union. "I'm limping along on the picket line right now," said the 46-year-old lineman, a fourth-generation Con Edison worker.

Con Ed has closed walk-in centers, suspended meter readings and limited work on major construction projects statewide. Maintenance and repair duties are being assigned to managers.

The utility said that four managers have been injured on the job. One suffered a heart attack while off duty. Another suffered hearing loss from a blow horn blasted by a locked-out worker. Two experienced burns, one with second-degree burns to the face and the other, minor burns to the hand.

Con Edison serves 3.2 million customers in the New York area, including 350,000 in Westchester County. Customers of Orange & Rockland, a wholly owned subsidiary of Con Ed, are unaffected by the strike.

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