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National Grid Union Workers OK Contract, Ending Lockout

Labor experts see the contract as a win for workers, especially considering the hard line National Grid took — locking out employees and cutting off their health insurance in an attempt to reduce their benefits.

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National Grid and the United Steelworkers were back at the bargaining table Wednesday, continuing an intensified effort to hammer out an agreement to end a six-month lockout., Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2018

National Grid workers voted overwhelmingly on Monday to approve a new contract, putting an end to a lockout that left 1,250 gas workers and support staff out of work for six months.

The 5½-year contract includes compromises on both sides. Unlike current workers, new hires will not have pensions, but they will get a retirement plan that includes a company contribution of 3 to 9 percent of gross pay, in addition to a 401(k) plan with a company match.

The contract also preserves retiree health benefits, life insurance, and 26 weeks of sick time, all of which the company had tried to eliminate or reduce for new hires.

Current workers will keep their health insurance plan with no deductibles or co-insurance for two years at the current rate, but costs will rise by an undetermined amount in 2021.

Wages will also rise 18 to 22 percent compounded over the life of the contract, and pension contributions for current employees will increase.

A few dozen jobs will be created, including new safety oversight positions and outsourced jobs that will be returned to union employees.

“We feel good,” said John Buonopane, the president of Local 12012, one of the two United Steelworkers locals involved in the lockout. “We did something that we think was unprecedented. We stood up to a multinational, multibillion-dollar corporation that has more money than a lot of countries in the world. . . . We had to compromise, but we compromised on our terms.”

National Grid also said that it had accomplished its goals.

“The company did make the progress we set out to make on health insurance and transitioning new hires to new retirement plans,” president Marcy Reed said in a conference call. “It’s a good deal for both sides.”

The locked-out workers, who serve about 700,000 gas customers in 85 communities in the state, will go back to work the week of Jan. 20. The Local 12012 vote was 323 for and 12 against the contract; at Local 12003, it was 562 to 105.

Labor experts see the contract as a win for workers, especially considering the hard line National Grid took — locking out employees and cutting off their health insurance in an attempt to reduce their benefits.

The workers, who had volunteered to keep working after their last contract expired on June 24, gained public sympathy over the course of the lockout, as well as support from lawmakers, who passed a bill to extend their unemployment benefits that Governor Charlie Baker signed into law last week.

“I think [National Grid] came out of it with a black eye that in many respects was completely unnecessary,” said Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I suspect they’ll think twice before they do it again.”

But, he noted, the company did accomplish what might be its main goal: getting rid of pensions for new hires.

The retirement plan for future employees is less costly for the company and, unlike with a traditional pension, employees are not guaranteed a certain monthly benefit for life.

Hugh Murray, a lawyer at McCarter & English in Hartford who represents management in labor disputes, said that neither side should be claiming victory in this fight. On the main sticking points of health insurance and pensions, the union and the company both got a bit of what they wanted.

“For most employees, this ship has sailed, and these guys were trying to hang on, and it looks like they hung on to some of it for a while,” he said.

The company expects to resume non-emergency work, including new services, in early February. Delays from the lockout and a temporary moratorium on non-emergency National Grid work following an overpressurization incident contributed to a potential year-long backup for developers trying to get gas hookups.

After the Local 12012 vote at the Irish American Club in Malden, the mood was jubilant, with workers shaking hands and slapping backs, and smiles all around. A number of them celebrated at the function hall’s bar with Budweisers and cigarettes.

Workers noted the hardships they went through but said the sacrifice was worth it.

“It was never really about us,” said Barry Johns, a 32-year gas worker who’s employed as a technician. “It addressed the needs of the generation coming in, which is what this is all about.”

The lockout followed months of contentious negotiations between a British company that raked in $4.8 billion in after-tax profit in 2018 and two Steelworkers locals that refused to make concessions that nearly every other National Grid union has made.

For six months, the locked-out union workers’ lives were turned upside down.

Their paychecks stopped coming, and unemployment insurance covered only about half of their base salary. The company cut off their health insurance, prompting some to put off doctor visits and one amputee to delay purchasing a prosthetic leg. They exhausted their savings and scaled back on Christmas presents, relied on family members for loans, and turned to the union for help paying bills. Other unions chipped in school supplies and gift cards; one threw the workers a Christmas party.

Days were spent picketing, recording alleged safety violations by replacement workers, attending rallies, and lobbying state lawmakers.

Diane Towle, a meter reader with 25 years at the company, said going back to work was going to be difficult. “They locked us out,” she said. “And that’s not a good taste in your mouth.”

Like the Marriott strike in the fall, which ended with Boston workers gaining a number of significant benefits, the National Grid lockout showed that standing up to a major corporation can be a powerful tool if you stick with it, labor experts noted. And it could inspire other workers to do the same.

“It’s been an interesting time for labor in Greater Boston, where people have stood up to really big corporate interests,” said Robert Forrant, a labor historian at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “My sense is that workers are feeling backed into a corner.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com.