Consolidated Edison closed walk-in centers, suspended meter readings and limited work on major construction projects in New York on Sunday after contract talks between the utility and its unionized workers broke down in the middle of a wave of extremely hot weather.
Negotiations stopped just before 2 a.m. Sunday, a couple of hours after the existing contract expired. The impasse came as New York braced for more high temperatures that will increase demand for air conditioning among the utility's 3.2 million customers.
On Sunday morning, police set up barricades in front of Con Ed's headquarters near Manhattan's Union Square. Only two workers stood there, but they said more were expected as they awaken and learn about the lockout.
"This is crazy! There's a heat wave," said David Palomino, a facility mechanic who rushed to headquarters after finishing his early shift to find out what was coming next.
"The fight has escalated" between the two sides, Palomino said, explaining that workers fear losing chunks of their pensions and benefits.
Temperatures were expected to reach into the 90s Sunday, with a heat advisory for the afternoon, and be in the high 80s and lower 90s in coming days.
The extreme weather also included vicious storms from Indiana to New Jersey and south to Virginia that killed at least 13 people and left 3 million without power. Most of the damage came in the mid-Atlantic region, and only scattered outages across Con Ed's service area in New York were reported as of Sunday morning. Con Ed said it is keeping a close watch on its system and has trained managers working on essential operations.
The 8,500 unionized workers told the company they'd be willing to work without a contract to keep the power company running, said John Melia, spokesman for Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers of America.
"We did everything to avert this action," he said. "We recognize that New York City is sweltering right now. ... We recognize we have a responsibility to the people of New York City and Westchester County," the suburban county north of the city.
Con Ed said it had wanted a two-week extension of the current contract while negotiations continued, with assurance that the union would not strike without notice. The company said it offered such an extension, signing an agreement to that effect, but that the union didn't sign it. Con Ed said if the union agreed to the extension, employees would be welcomed back.
Negotiations lasted just over 10 days over a range of issues, including pensions, heath care and wages.
"This is very unfortunate. Both sides are very far part," Con Ed spokesman Michael Clendenin said.
Melia said the union negotiators were kicked out of the room in what he called a "union-busting tactic."
"This is not a labor issue," he said. "This is a corporate monopoly."