Thursday, July 05, 2012

New York Electricity Workers Locked Out Amidst Heatwave

The ConEd lockout perfectly illustrates the irrationality of the profit system
In some ways it's hard to imagine a more stark illustration of capitalism's essential irrationality. New York City is currently sweltering through a heatwave, with temperatures in the mid- to late-30s centigrade. As a result, there has been a predictable summer surge in electricity usage, with people scrambling to turn on air conditioning. It is at this point that the Consolidated Edison utilities company has chosen to lock out its 8,500-strong workforce.

This is because ConEd's priority is not the safe and efficient provision of electricity and gas for its 3.2 million customers. Just as with every business, profit is its bottom line. Last year the $39 billion corporation paid CEO Kevin Burke nearly $12 million, and the entire board of directors won a 20% pay rise. Dividends to shareholders have increased for every single one of the last thirty-eight years. Of course, these riches have to come from somewhere, and ultimately they come from the labour of those skilled workers. But their rate of exploitation is insufficiently high for the board's liking, so when their contract expired on Sunday, the management pre-empted any picket line rejection of their new 'offer'.

Under the proposed new contracts, there would be a lower rate for new hires, and the company pension scheme would be slashed in a link up to the (now generally downward) fluctuations of the stock market. Even more seriously than this, employee contributions to their health care plan would increase from $20 per week under the last contract to $133 per family - leaving the average worker many thousands of dollars a year worse off.

Yesterday, a manager found out that scabbing can be dangerous
The cuts are so huge, they seem designed to pick a fight with the workforce. Indeed, ConEd President Craig Ivey was notorious for his union-busting activity at Virginia utility corporation Dominion before he came to ConEd in 2009. The arrival of the new contract deadline is clearly an opportunity for which ConEd's board have long been preparing - 5,000 scabs are currently operating, including low level managers and often rusty retirees. Yesterday, it was reported that one manager suffered facial burns during an explosion in Upper West Side.

One LibCom blogger has reported that:
"On the picket line, the workers that we spoke to seemed quite aware of the significance of the dispute. Describing management's attack as a “race to the bottom”, they expressed a fear of being turned into unskilled laborers making $7.25 an hour. When asked if workers who hadn't made it to the picket line were prepared for a long struggle, possibly dragging into weeks and even months, we were told “they have to. This is a fight for their jobs and their livelihoods. They don't have a choice.” In the mean time, workers plan to continue with their round-the-clock 24-hour pickets."
For their part, the Utility Workers Union of America negotiators have agreed to hold talks with management, following pressure from Democratic Party politicians. With the possibility of union-busting - and therefore a loss of a major dues base for union tops - hanging in the air, the bureaucracy will be keen to stitch up a deal and get the employees back to work as soon as possible. To defeat such a sell-out, workers will need to organise on a rank-and-file basis, and reach out to the wider NYC working class for solidarity.
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