STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — Unable since Nov. 1 to shake his popular bill out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Senate Rules Committee Chair Mark Montigny on Tuesday took his case directly to Senate President Karen Spilka, urging her to help advance legislation ensuring benefits to workers locked out by their employers.

A New Bedford Democrat, Montigny asked Spilka in a letter Tuesday to force action on a bill providing extended unemployment benefits to locked out workers, such as the more than 1,200 gas workers who have been engaged in a labor dispute with National Grid since June. The gas workers lost their health insurance and paychecks and have turned to public insurance programs and unemployment benefits to get by during the lockout.

Montigny said the Senate should pass a bill expanding the scope of a House bill (H 4988) approved Dec. 6 and correcting a portion of the House bill.

"Unfortunately, it is apparent that this bill would penalize all utilities, including those who have not locked out employees," Montigny wrote, referring to the House bill. "In addition, it does not account for other industries where lock outs may occur. As numerous unions have indicated, lock outs are a strategy increasingly used by employers to essentially starve their workers into submission. These errors must be remedied in an expeditious manner."

National Grid says it's offering a generous contract to the gas workers, one that has been accepted by other utility worker unions. Union leaders say that the company is retreating on pension benefits for new hires. The two sides have engaged in more frequent contract talks in recent days.

Spilka and Senate Ways and Means Vice Chair Joan Lovely have not explained what's holding back the lockout bill, which any senator could block because the Legislature since July 31 has been meeting in informal sessions where debate and recorded votes are not permitted and bills need to advance unanimously.

On Nov. 1, a majority of senators (25) signed a letter to Lovely urging the committee she leads, and which was led by Spilka for most of this session, to advance Montigny's bill (S 1028). Six Senate Republicans signed the letter.

In March, the Labor and Workforce Development Committee gave the bill a favorable report, but it has stalled out in Ways and Means.

When the House passed its lockout bill Dec. 6, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the bill protected taxpayers and ratepayers by "assuring that the cost of these benefits fall solely to the employer responsible for the lockout." However, the bill, as approved, would only apply extended lockout benefits to workers in the utility sector and would require all electric or gas utilities to cover extended benefits for employees locked out by any one utility.

"The intent of the legislation is that any utility which locks out its employees should be required to fund the benefit program established by the legislation to provide benefits to locked-out workers upon the expiration of their unemployment insurance benefits," DeLeo spokeswoman Catherine Williams said in a statement to the News Service Monday. "The Speaker intends to discuss the correction of this drafting error with the Senate President and, if necessary, the House stands ready to make additional changes if the bill is returned."

The locked out gas workers say they're on track to exhaust their unemployment benefits in January. According to Montigny's office, his bill would extend benefits by up to an additional 26 weeks for workers involuntarily locked out of their jobs.

On Dec. 10, Spilka and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr issued a statement saying they were ready to intervene if National Grid won't end its lockout.

"This process has gone on long enough, and the Senate is prepared to take action if needed," they said.

The threat of action has not ended the lockout and it remains unclear what would trigger the Senate to act, or what's holding up the lockout bill.

Unions plan a solidarity rally with locked out workers Wednesday at noon in Boston. The Senate meets next at 11 a.m. on Thursday.

--Michael P. Norton, State House News Service