Locked-out NY power workers charge utility with safety risks

Wed Jul 25, 2012 3:56pm EDT

A Consolidated Edison worker protests outside the company's offices in New York July 5, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

A Consolidated Edison worker protests outside the company's offices in New York July 5, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

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(Reuters) - Locked-out New York power workers charged on Wednesday that the safety of the electricity system in America's largest city was being compromised by managers and substitute crews brought in to do emergency maintenance work.

Consolidated Edison denied the accusation, saying the city had survived heat of over 100 degrees F (38 degrees Celsius) this month without major loss of electricity.

"We are responding to emergencies, the lights are on," John Miksad, ConEd's Senior Vice President of Electric Operations told a joint committee of the New York State Assembly.

"The stock market is open, the subways are running and hospitals are performing their critical functions," he said. "It's summer in the city and air conditioners are humming. New York City is open for business."

Miksad said the company bore a responsibility to the city of over 8 million people, "that we are continuing to meet even under the present circumstances."

The Utilities Workers Union of America (UWUA) called for the hearing of the Assembly's energy and labor committees, saying health and safety were at risk since the company locked out 8,000 workers on July 1 when labor contract talks broke down.

ConEd has trained managers to carry out essential maintenance work on the system and has also brought in non-union workers from other states. There have been some isolated incidents in which managers have been burned doing emergency repairs.

"We submitted photographs into evidence showing managers not wearing the required safety equipment," said union spokesman John Melia. "ConEd has an untrained workforce doing our jobs and that is resulting in unsafe conditions."

Two weeks ago, the union called on state regulators to order ConEd to end its lockout, charging the company was violating regulatory obligations to provide a safe and reliable service.

The New York State Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates power companies in the state, is reviewing its options after hearing from both sides.

Asked what the Assembly could do, the union's Melia said it might take legislative action or call on the PSC to intervene.

ConEd's Miksad said there were three heat waves in July and last Wednesday set a peak electricity delivery record for 2012.

"Severe thunderstorms, hail, and winds in excess of 50 miles an hour broke last week's heat, but caused thousands to lose power," he said. "In less than 24 hours, we had everyone's power restored."

Meanwhile, negotiators for both sides sat down for talks on Wednesday. A major sticking point, besides wages and health care costs, has been ConEd's move to phase out defined pensions.

Miksad did not detail the talks during his testimony to the Assembly hearing, but said the dispute could be settled quickly if the union agreed to give notice of a strike.

"A simple signature by union leaders, agreeing to a 72-hour notice before calling a strike, is the only thing that stands between getting 8,000 people off picket lines and back on the job," he said.

(Reporting By Steve James; Editing by David Gregorio)

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