(Reuters) - New York City utility workers locked out by Consolidated Edison asked on Monday for federal mediators to step into labor talks, as a series of small power outages raised the specter of major blackouts in America’s biggest city during a heat wave.
“We’ve had a few scattered outages, but that is normal even when it is not hot,” said Con Ed spokesman Mike Clendenon. He said there were some small power disruptions in the Bronx and Queens boroughs as well as a manhole fire in Brooklyn.
The company has trained 5,000 managers to respond to emergencies in place of the 8,500 unionized workers who were locked out when contract talks stalled at midnight Saturday.
Clendenon said that in addition to managers handling outages, manhole fires or downed trees, Con Ed was also planning to hire retirees on an hourly basis for emergencies.
Much of the eastern half of the United States was baking in a heat wave for a fourth day on Monday, with temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius). More than 3 million households were without power from Illinois to Virginia, and forecasters said it would heat up later this week in the New York area, putting more strain on the city’s electric grid.
John Melia, a spokesman for the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), said the union was seeking help from the federal government to resolve the impasse over a new work contract.
“We have reached out to federal mediators,” he said, noting that representatives of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service had been observing the negotiations already.
A spokeswoman for the federal service said only that FMCS representatives had been present at the table and were in touch with both parties.
“They (FMCS) witnessed this train wreck,” Melia said of the move by Con Ed to order union members not to report for work. The talks broke off after a union strike deadline expired.
The company had sought a two-week extension of the talks, which the union declined, saying it would prevent them from using the strike option. “We are ready to negotiate anywhere, anytime,” said Melia.
A major sticking point in the negotiations is Con Ed’s move to phase out defined pensions for union workers.
Reporting By Steve James; Editing by John Picinich