National Grid Workers Pressure Investors on 4-Month Lockout (1)

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By Andrew Wallender

National Grid PLC gas workers in Massachusetts are taking their labor dispute to investors as 1,250 union members enter month five of a lockout.

The workers, represented by the United Steelworkers, were denied entry to work on June 25 after previous contracts with the local unions expired without an agreement. The company and union have met 14 times in the past 18 weeks and made progress with an offer of increased pension benefits, according to National Grid spokeswoman Christine Milligan.

But as negotiations continue, the union is calling on investors to hold the company accountable for safety concerns and the treatment of employees during the lockout.

The National Grid workers are just one of many unions turning to investors when a labor dispute emerges. Shareholder meetings and letters to investors offer unions a chance to directly address company leadership and alert Wall Street when employees think company management is affecting productivity or safety. Investors at Casears Entertainment Corp., UPS Inc., and Verizon Communications Inc. have all been the subject of similar campaigns.

A Visit to England

Union leaders decided to take their concerns to the top when negotiations stalled after the lockout began. They would speak to the chairman, Sir Peter Oliver Gershon, in person.

Workers bought shares of National Grid stock, purchased plane tickets, and traveled to Birmingham, England, to question company leadership at the annual investors meeting on July 30.

“We want a good relationship with this company,” United Steelworkers Local 12012 President John Buonopane told the chairman during a question-and-answer session, generating scattered applause. “It’s very unfortunate that you had to do this. Because you didn’t have to do it. And we didn’t choose to be in the position we’re in.”

Another union president, Joe Kirylo of USW Local 12003, asked about dozens of safety concerns the union raised with management over the years.

The chairman chided the union members, saying resolution would be achieved at the negotiating table, not “an exchange of views in this room.”

The appearance may not have brought resolution—the workers are still locked out four months after the dispute began—but it brought the issue to the attention of shareholders. Fifteen minutes of the approximately 95-minute presentation and question period at the shareholder meeting were spent on a labor dispute some 3,000 miles away.

Once-a-Year Opportunity

Annual shareholders meetings are an important opportunity for accountability, Brandon Rees, the AFL-CIO deputy director of corporations and capital markets, told Bloomberg Law. They allow all types of shareholders—from retail investors to retirees to active employees—to question chief executives.

“It’s the one day of the year the CEO has to answer for management of the company,” Rees said. “Union members quite often attend shareholder meetings for that reason.”

The Culinary Union, which represents 57,000 workers in Nevada, used a Caesars Entertainment Corp. annual shareholder meeting in May to meet with investors and inform them of ongoing contract negotiations.

“We believe it’s fair and proper for the union to take its case to shareholders,” Culinary Union Communications Director Bethany Khan said. “The shareholders are the ones who ultimately pay for contract settlements or the alternative of labor disputes, which could be protests and picketing or a strike.”

Labor unions often also hold rallies outside shareholder meetings, raising awareness on issues from labor disputes to executive pay to lobbying disclosures. UPS Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., XPO Logistics Inc., and AT&T Inc. are among the companies that unions have targeted for shareholder demonstrations.

Institutional Pressure

The union workers’ appearance at the National Grid shareholder meeting yielded no movement in the labor dispute. So the union upped its awareness campaign. It sent out letters detailing the lockout to the company’s 500 largest institutional investors, worth about $19 billion in National Grid investments, according to Kirylo.

The local unions posted an open letter to shareholders on a website dedicated to the lockout. And the United Steelworkers used its Twitter account with 40,000 followers to call out multiple investors in National Grid, including Morgan Stanley, Charles Schwab Corp., and State Street Corp.

“In the interest of public safety and for the sake of the company’s future, the United Steelworkers and our 1,200+ members and their families urge you to use your leverage as holders of National Grid stock to question the company’s irresponsible decision to lock out its most experienced workers,” the USW letter said.

The public call-out of investors with ties to National Grid is reminiscent of other recent social media campaigns putting pressure on companies to respond to social issues such as gun control, tobacco, or climate change. Earlier this year, multiple companies cut ties with the National Rifle Association following social media campaigns led by survivors of the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead.

Investors Respond

About five or six investors reached out to National Grid requesting more information on the lockout since the union began its campaign, according to Milligan, the National Grid spokeswoman. All of them were satisfied with answers the company provided regarding safety during the lockout, she added.

The United Steelworkers international union didn’t respond to messages requesting comment.

The low level of shareholder interest in the lockout surprises Kirylo, who said the company’s value is eroding as the lockout halts new business and raises safety concerns.

The company responded that temporary workers are being held to the same standards as unionized workers. Safety requirements are being met and temporary workers have demonstrated competency to work on the gas system, according to Milligan.

“The safety of our employees, customers and the general public is always our top priority,” Milligan said. “Anything less would not only be irresponsible, but a terrible business decision for a utility whose success is so closely tied to its safety record.”

As the lockout continues, the union delivered safety complaints dating back to 2011 to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities and the governor’s office. The DPU has multiple ongoing investigations into the company’s safety practices.

“National Grid has been made aware of hundreds and hundreds of safety problems,” Kirylo said. “And by not dealing with them properly, at least in my eyes, they’re jeopardizing the shareholders. They’re jeopardizing their brand, they’re jeopardizing everything else.”

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