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With a strong nudge from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Consolidated Edison and the Local 1-2 Utility Workers Union of America have put an end to the energy company’s month-long lockout of 8,000 workers and entered a tentative contract agreement.

But first the governor had unsuccessfully appealed to a higher authority – the New York State Public Service Commission.

What exactly is the Public Service Commission, to which the governor of New York must ask instead of command? We asked commission spokesperson James Denn.

“The Public Service Commission is the regulator of utilities in New York State,” said Denn. That includes electricity, gas, steam, water, telephone and cable companies. Utilities have to get approval from the commission before they can change the rates they charge for these services, a process that usually takes 11 months from start to finish. The commission also enforces rules to ensure safety and reliability. Formed in 1907 to set rates and keep a check on monopolies, New York’s public service commission was one of the first utility regulators in the naton.

The commission consists of five members appointed to six-year terms by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. New York law dictates that no more than three of the commissioners can be members of the same political party. The commission’s rate proceedings are open to the public and hearings for public comment are held in the communities that would be affected by any changes.

That much is straightforward. Where things get messy, as the Con Ed lockout showed, is over the question of whether the Public Service Commission can step in and help settle labor disputes.

Responding to the governor’s plea for the Public Service Commission to force an end to the lockout, Chairman Garry Brown contended that the commission does not have statutory authority over labor unions, has not intervened in past lockouts and work stoppages, and does not have the legal authority in any case.

Cuomo was not the only one who’d appealed to the Public Service Commission in the midst of the dispute — the union itself had filed a complaint demanding that the commission end the lockout. It asked the commission to investigate the quality and safety of Con Ed service in the absence of the workers and determine whether customers were being charged unfairly for the level of service they received.

Union spokesperson John Melia said it “remains to be seen” whether the union will withdraw its request to the commission now that the union and utility have reached an agreement.

So was the Public Service Commission as powerless as it claimed to be? It’s true that under federal law, a state cannot interfere with utility companies’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act. If a utility wants to press for the kind of givebacks Con Ed sought in worker pension or health care benefits, “The company is free to do that even if it seems crazy,” said Gerald Norlander, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York.

The commission can, however, intervene if the company’s actions are compromising safety or reliability of service. The legal question in a situation like the lockout, said Nordlander, is whether it is creating some type of emergency. In support of the union’s petition to the Public Service Commission, Nordlander’s group contended that the lockout created just such a dangerous situation, particularly by Con Edison’s closing of walk-in centers where customers who are about to have their electricity turned off pay their bills.

The lockout was settled before the union’s case could be heard.

 

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