NEW LONDON – The crowd of New Jersey longshoremen that once filled the road to the State Pier were gone as the local union returned to work on Thursday, ending their three-day strike against Danish energy giant Ørsted.
Jim Paylor, assistant general organizer for the International Longshoremen’s Association and co-chair of the group’s wind committee, said the move was a temporary show of good faith. He noted, however, that the workers weren’t backing down from their claim that they should be operating the massive cranes and speciality vehicles used to move turbine parts around the pier.
“We’re trying to do the right thing for the president’s green energy initiative, but that’s temporary,” Paylor said. “At this point, we’re just trying to open up some good communication.”
The International Longshoremen’s Association declared a strike against Ørsted on Monday, refusing to load the barge that would transport turbines to be assembled into South Fork Wind off the coast of Long Island.
Ørsted, which along with Eversource had paid tens of millions of dollars toward turning the pier into a staging port for their offshore wind projects, said Tuesday that the turbine manufacturer Siemens Gamesa would send other workers to place the turbines on the barge.
Some Siemens Gamesa workers were on site making preparations Tuesday, but nothing was loaded on the barge. The turbine blades still sat, stacked along the edge of the pier Tuesday evening, waiting to be loaded.
But on Wednesday, two busloads of longshoremen, mostly from New Jersey, arrived at the gate, holding signs, chanting and heckling people from the other side of the picket line. Dozens of local and state police stood between the buses and the picket line that refused to let them through. Longshoremen said they were threatened with arrest, but refused to budge.
After a tense standoff, the buses eventually backed away.
Three days into the strike, neither side appeared to budge on their positions. The local ILA wanted Ørsted train its workers to use massive cranes and specialty vehicles to move turbine parts around the pier – from the ships to where building trade workers assembled them.
Ørsted insisted the ILA’s problem wasn’t with the company, but rather a jurisdictional dispute between the ILA and the Operating Engineers, who they said were already trained on the equipment. And Connecticut building trades were upset that longshoremen from New Jersey stopped them from going to work.
Paylor said no agreement was reached between the longshoremen and Ørsted on Thursday, but that the return to work was a show of diplomacy. He said he hoped the move will lead to more communication between ILA and Ørsted, but admitted he was frustrated with the company’s public comments about the union this week.
On Tuesday, Ørsted sent CT Examiner a statement from its head of labor relations, Allison Ziogas, saying that the ILA’s refusal to work for a second day “left us with no choice” but to have the turbine manufacturer Siemens Gamesa send other workers to load the barge as a contingency plan to keep South Fork Wind on track.
“We have obligations to the state of New York to deliver South Fork Wind, and to the state of Connecticut to use the taxpayer-funded State Pier for turbine assembly, and we cannot let this unproductive work stoppage delay either obligation,” Ziogas said in the statement.
When the New Jersey longshoremen joined the protest on Wednesday, Ørsted provided an emailed statement from spokesman Tory Mazzola, who chastised the ILA for trying to block trade union workers from the job site.
“Out-of-state ILA members attempted to block Connecticut union workers and other members of the South Fork Wind team from reporting to work for the day,” Mazzola said in the statement. “With assistance from state and local police, the bus was eventually able to pass and those workers reported to the job site.”
In response, Paylor said Ørsted was distorting facts, misleading the public and pitting the ILA against building trade unions.
“Workers from different trades are saying they’ve been told by Ørsted’s people that our actions are to take over all their jobs,” Paylor said. “That’s not even close to accurate.”
After the two buses were turned away on Wednesday, one returned and passed through the gate with a police escort as longshoremen shouted at the bus.
Keith Brothers, president of the Connecticut State Building Trades Council, which includes the Operating Engineers and other trade unions working on the South Fork project, said the two buses were consolidated into one carrying building tradespeople from Connecticut and supervisors from Siemens Gamesa, including some from other countries.
“The demonstrators came up on the roadway, so we sent the buses away because it was a safety issue,” Brothers said. “The police regrouped, and some more people came in from the state police, and then the bus came back with a mix of people on it and drove through. So it wasn’t an issue.”
Brothers said the most important thing was that the ILA and the trades were back working side by side at State Pier on Thursday. But he said he’s not sure what will happen next.
“We clearly believe that the cranes are construction cranes and are part of the construction process, and the operating engineers will continue to run the cranes until someone tells us different,” Brothers said.
Both unions have a clear stance that the work belongs to them. The ILA argues the work is part of the longshoremen’s jobs of loading, unloading and moving cargo around the pier.
“It’s a crime that an outside company can do what they’ve done by ignoring and destroying historical core jurisdiction and thinking it’s OK. It’s an attack on our jurisdiction, it’s not just the loss of those individual jobs,” Paylor said. “I believe all the other unions are the victims like we are now, because nobody wants this.”
But Brothers said the cranes are specialized equipment that require licenses to run, and that the Operating Engineers have people trained and licensed to run them. And even if the ILA had people trained, Brothers said, the project labor agreement with the building trades still outlines it as Operating Engineers work.
Ultimately, it’s up to the national Operating Engineers and ILA to work out the dispute, he said.