Con Ed’s Con Job

The folks who run Consolidated Edison would have us believe that they had no choice but to lock out their unionized workers in the middle of a heat wave. Don’t worry, they’ve said. Managers can handle any power-related crisis.

Right. And rates will remain the same for the next decade. And Con Ed will become a more-efficient, better-run organization—one of these days.

As any property-owner in New York City knows all too well, Con Ed is a symbol of all of the flaws associated with monopoly control over a product or service. Rates go up without any accountability or explanation. Work takes forever to finish. The utility’s 3.2 million customers are powerless, so to speak, to take their business elsewhere.

And now this—management has locked out 8,000 unionized workers for nearly two weeks, since the union’s contract expired on July 1. Bear in mind, this is a lockout, not a strike. The union said it was willing to stay on the job without a contract, although it declined management’s request that union leaders give seven days’ notice if the union decides to strike. Management decided to send the workers home. A union official described the move as “irresponsible.” That’s absolutely right.

Pension benefits are at the heart of this standoff—if that sounds familiar, it’s because pension benefits (and health benefits) are at the core of seemingly every labor-management conflict these days. Con Ed wants to phase out defined-benefits pensions in favor of 401(k) pensions—a reasonable request. Other issues in dispute include cuts to medical benefits and proposed pay freezes.

In essence, this dispute is no different from so many other disputes in recent years. Yet somehow other entities, including the city and state of New York, have been able to negotiate with unions with neither side resorting to desperate tactics.

Con Ed, however, chose confrontation over reasonable negotiation. Top executives apparently believe that managers are capable of climbing poles and performing other dangerous work for which they have little if any training. One manager sustained burns while filling in for union workers at a Brooklyn substation on July 2. More injuries are certain to follow if Con Ed continues to dig in its heels.

The most frightening prospect, of course, is a power emergency of some sort—and that can’t be ruled out during this time of year. Just over a week ago, a storm left tens of thousands without power in nearby south Jersey, and the local utility, with its full complement of workers, scrambled for days to repair the damage. Is Con Ed prepared to send out its managers to repair downed power lines?

Ironically, the utility is not wrong in its wish to convert old-style pensions to 401(k) pensions. This page has urged mayors and governors, never mind private-sector CEOs, to phase out unsustainable defined-benefits pensions. Con Ed has every right to negotiate that critical issue with its union.

But executives first have to back off. Bring back the workers, end the lockout, and get back to the table—before more people get hurt, or worse.