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Connecticut Line Workers Win Significant Arbitration Against PSNH

High Voltage Line Workers (Luca Florio FLIKR CC 4.0)

High Voltage Line Workers (Luca Florio FLIKR CC 4.0)

Workers win arbitration case after being suspended for refusing to do work that put their health and safety at risk.

Some people claim that “unions are no longer necessary” because they have already done their job. Thanks to unions we have workplace protections and occupational safety requirements. Just because these laws are in place does not mean that employers actually abide by them.

During the week of Thanksgiving in 2014, most of New England was buried in snow and ice from a barrage of winter storms. One storm knocked out power for most of the southern part of New Hampshire.

Tens of thousands of Granite Staters spent the Thanksgiving holiday in their homes with no heat, hot water or electricity.

To help restore power as quickly as possible Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) sent out the call to line workers across the region. Workers from Connecticut Power and Light (IBEW Local 420) answered that call. Giving up on their own holiday plans they drove through the remnants of the storm to help restore power to the people of New Hampshire.

Once they arrived in New Hampshire they were informed of their duties and what they would need to do to get the power restored.

But there was a problem.

PSNH instructed the CT line workers to repair damaged 34.5k voltage lines throughout the area. The CT crew was not trained or equipped to handle these high voltage line repairs. When the workers objected the PSNH supervisor, Enos Stevens, told them, the lines would not be energized and they could just test the line for “potential with hot sticks.”

Again the workers objected as they were not trained nor equipped to handle these types of lines. Stevens responded by saying, “this is the work we are doing.”

After the workers objected, Stevens threatened the workers with disciplinary actions for failing to do their assigned tasks. Stevens said, “If you are not going to do the job, you are all going home.”

Instead of risking their own personal safety, seventeen of the workers continued to refuse the assigned tasks and were sent home. It was not until a few days later that the workers found out that they had all been suspended without pay for insubordination.

“[PSNH] had other work available but chose to send the workers home instead of sending them out to work on lower voltage lines,” said Frank Cirillo Business Agent for the IBEW local 420 in a recent phone interview. Cirillo estimated that only one of the ten possible tasks the workers could have been assigned would have required handling this 34.5k voltage lines. “They could have been utilized in other areas to help restore power to the people in New Hampshire, but instead were sent home.”

The union immediately filed grievances on behalf of the workers and took the case all the way to arbitration.

In his decision the arbitrator clearly stated that, “the Company did not have just cause to suspend the grievants for 5 days without pay.” He went on to say, “An employee is under no duty to obey an order which would endanger his life or health.”

All seventeen workers had their records expunged and were “made whole for all wages and benefits lost as a result of the suspension.”

After the arbitrator’s decision was made, Cirillo said, “This is an excellent decision.”

Cirillo said he was “not surprised by the decision,” but highlighted the importance of the arbitrator’s decision to uphold the workers safety concerns and that workers should not be forced to do a job that would put their safety at risk.

This case once again proves that even though we have mandatory safety requirements, employers choose to ignore them and risk the health and safety of workers. Without the support of their union behind them these worker would have been wrongfully disciplined or worse seriously injured on the job.

It is a fact that unions helped to pave the way for many of the safety regulations we have in place now, but without unions who will hold employers accountable for abiding by these safety regulations?

This is just one example of why unions are needed just as much today as they were a hundred years ago.

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About Matt Murray

Matt Murray is the creator and an author on the NH Labor News. He is a union member and advocate for labor and progressive politics. He also works with other unions and members to help spread our message. Follow him on Twitter @NHLabor_News
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