Utility workers to vote on unpopular CL&P contract

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Workers at Connecticut's largest utility may inch closer to a strike when they vote Thursday and Friday on a contract offer that the union's leadership has recommended be rejected.

Union negotiators say workers and Connecticut Light & Power are still far apart on staffing and overtime issues and rejection of the proposed four-year agreement will automatically authorize a strike, though a work stoppage is by no means certain. The previous contract, which represented about 1,200 workers, expired in June and the two sides have been negotiating since March, said Frank Cirillo, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420 in Waterbury.

Negotiators instantly rejected the company's proposal when it was offered in mid-September, he said. A company demand that workers be on call for possible overtime infuriated union members and their representatives, he said.

"They're just an angry bunch of people," he said.

Caroline Pretyman, a spokeswoman for parent company Northeast Utilities, compared utility workers with first responders such as police officers and firefighters and said they must be available to restore power knocked out by storms. Union demands that CL&P hire enough workers to cope with extreme storms such as Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and a freak snowstorm the following October would be unnecessarily costly, she said.

CL&P, which serves 1.2 million customers, is hiring 30 more line workers to improve day-to-day operations, Pretyman said. The company also is looking to add a second shift that would extend its workforce to late afternoon and early evening.

The utility drew tremendous criticism from regulators, customers and elected officials over its slow response to restoring power following last year's storms. The union blames staff cuts, but CL&P said it brought in about 200 utility workers from out of state to help restore power.

Instead, Pretyman says, a union rule allowing line worker older than 45 to refuse to work overtime has forced the utility to rely on a smaller pool of younger employees.

Cirillo disputes that, saying many older employees still work overtime even though they have the right to opt out. The additional overtime helps boost their pension payment when they retire, he said.

Average pay for CL&P workers is about $39 an hour, or about $80,000 a year, which can be boosted with overtime to as much as $100,000. Cirillo says that although the pay is good, the work is dangerous because it requires scaling tall structures and close proximity to electricity.

Neither side believes workers will strike.

"I'm not concerned with that at this point," Cirillo said. "I think (the company will) come back to the bargaining table."

Pretyman said the company and union leaders will talk about how to proceed if union members reject the contract.