New President Looks To Shake Up TWU Local 101
September 10, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco
Every day, over 9 million National Grid customers in Brooklyn and Queens rely on roughly 1400 members of TWU Local 101 to safely deliver vital natural gas to their homes and offices. But few of those customers even know who’s responsible for keeping everything running smoothing.
That’s something new TWU Local 101 President Michael Conigliaro wants to change.
“I want people to know who we are,” Conigliaro recently told LaborPress. “People don’t know what we do.”
In addition to turning the gas on and off, installing miles of underground pipes and repairing leaks, TWU Local 101 maintains huge and highly complex transfer stations and LNG plants needed to supply the city with natural gas.
LNG – or Liquified Natural Gas – plants convert gas for easier storage and transport. The second-largest such facility is located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The inherent volatility of gas, in any of it forms, makes working with the utility incredibly dangerous.
“With natural gas you don’t get a second chance,” Conigliaro said. “We get flashbacks. We get burns.”
Sometimes, the dangers posed to TWU Local 101 members – who generally begin their careers through on-the-job training – come not from the staggering volumes of natural gas they constantly manipulate – but from much more mundane hazardous looming on job sites throughout the city.
“We’re working in the streets, Conigliaro said. “And you’d be surprised how dangerous that is. Just crossing the street is dangerous – we’re working there all day.”
Providing natural gas to New Yorkers since 1947 when the utility was know as the old Brooklyn Union Gas company, TWU Local 101 members have continued to respond to leaks, install new mains and provide customer care despite numerous corporate upheavals – thanks in large part to no-layoff and successor clauses contained in their contract. BUG’s latest iteration, following earlier incarnations as KeySpan Energy is the British-owned National Grid.
Today, Conigliaro says that TWU Local 101 is “pretty much at peace” with National Grid after signing a new contract with the British-owned transnational two years ago.
“I would say that we have an adversarial relationship,” Conigliaro said. “We’re there when we need to go and battle with the company, but overall, we’re okay with the company right now.”
Of the 32 active locals within National Grid territory, Local 101 is the third largest.
“So, they kind of pay attention to us when we speak,” Conigliaro said.
However, despite that relative atmosphere of detente, this summer’s Con Edison lockout has put the TWU Local 101 leadership on guard. And it’s new president is urging his members to become better educated and engaged.
“We currently enjoy a productive relationship with National Grid,” Conigliaro recently said in a letter to the rank and file. “But, we need only look across the street to our brothers and sisters at Con Ed to see what could happen if we allow complacency to set in.”
Complacency and poor communication are two of the biggest challenges facing TWU Local 101 following the longtime reign of former President Marsha Spinowitz.
“Our communication with our members has been lousy,” Conigliaro said. “We’re looking to improve that.”
According to the new union chief, delegates are ill-informed and the rank and file is largely unaware of many fundamental aspects of their own contract, benefit plans and even rights and responsibilities.
“I’m trying educate our members,” Conigliaro said. “What can a supervisor tell you to do and what can he not tell you to do? When do you get your vacation? When do you get your sick time? When do you go on compensation? Do you even know about that? My membership has no clue. Sad to say, we’ve done a poor job of that.”
Conigliaro, who draws inspiration from Abraham Lincoln, and is fond of quoting the 16th president, will convene his first meeting with the rank and file as union president on September 20. The event will be held at the Knights of Columbus located at 1305 86th Street in Brooklyn. The new president hopes subsequent meetings will be an opportunity for expert guest speakers to come and talk to members about important issues like workman’s compensation and the like.
“We don’t work together, and that’s the problem,” Conigliaro said. “The word union is supposed to mean together, and we’re not there yet. I’m trying to build that with my membership.”
As with any union today, pension benefits and healthcare costs also remain serious issues for TWU Local 101.
“Our membership is paying substantially for medical right now,” Conigliaro said. “And that’s always a challenge for us during negotiations.”
Local 101 members have the option of choosing between two Emblem Health plans, and that has helped curb some costs, according to Conigliaro. The union also has a wellness program emphasizing prevention – but it is not being utilized.
“We do have a wellness program,” Conigliaro said. “Unfortunately, our membership doesn’t take advantage of it, which is something that we need to do. We also need to get the company and Emblem Health to realize that, if I do your wellness program, there should be a 25 percent discount on my plan. And we don’t do that enough. That alone would save everybody money.”
Although National Grid enjoys a virtual monopoly, Conigliaro sees opportunities to expand within the local.
“And the way to do that is, I have to get my membership to take pride in what they do,” he said. “And if I can get them to do that, then I believe I’m on the right path.”