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At Con-Ed Lockout Protest, Unions Embrace Class War

Marchers at yesterday's protest of the Con Edison lockout.
Marchers at yesterday's protest of the Con Edison lockout.

The Con Edison lockout of 8,500 workers is now well into its third week, and there doesn't appear to be any end is in sight.

Negotiations between the utility giant and members of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2 resume today, but sources inside the negotiations say so recent talks haven't gone anywhere.

Con Ed locked out its union employees at the beginning of the month, when they wouldn't promise not to strike on short notice. Since then, it has been filling the gap by reassigning 5,000 managers to do the field maintenance necessary to keep the grid running through heat waves and brown-outs.

Locked-out workers tried to turn up the pressure yesterday with a noisy demonstration that began outside Con Ed's headquarters on Irving Place and proceeded to Union Square.

The demonstration was large, filing the northern section of Union Square. Utility workers were joined by members of the Service Employees International Union, the Transit Workers Union, the Communication Workers of America, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, the United Federation of Teachers, the Steamfitters Union, and the United Auto Workers, Occupy Wall Street, and others. (Full disclosure: Village Voice employees are also members of the UAW.)

The demonstration was also painfully noisy, as most of the union members were equipped with pump-action air horns that made vuvuzelas seem quiet and sonorous by comparison.

The mood in Union Square was optimistic and defiant. Utility workers said they were heartened to see the strong showing from other unions.

"We should be doing this more often," said Ricky Ward, a 45-year-old customer field representative. "Even when we get our jobs back. Organized labor -- we're all one."

That was certainly the message coming from union leadership. "This is not just about the utility workers," said Mike Langford, national president of the UWUA. ""It's about the entire labor movement, around the globe."

A member of the United Auto Workers, who didn't wish to give her name, said the Con Ed labor dispute feels like a landmark battle that will have implications for the rest of organized labor. "This is like Wisconsin," she said. "In this case it's the private-sector, but we're talking about a company that's turning a profit -- a billion dollars in profit. If they can win big concessions from workers in that situation, that's a real bad sign for the rest of us."

That sense of common purpose found expression yesterday in an aggressive and class-conscious vocabulary reminiscent of that of Occupy Wall Street.

"We have to do whatever it takes to put the 1 percent back in their place," AFL-CIO National President Richard Trumka told the crowd.

Local 1-2 President exhorted the crowd to press its demands through street protests. "We have to learn a lesson from Dr. Martin Luther King," he said. "We have to take it to the streets."

[npinto@villagevoice.com] [@macfathom]

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