Science & Environment

Workers Plan To Unionize At Biggest U.S. Nuclear Fuel Factory

Workers on the United States’ largest manufacturing facility for assembling the gas rods utilized in nuclear reactors are trying to unionize.

Nearly 700 staff on the Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility, positioned 25 minutes southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, are set to vote on whether or not to type a union represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The election is scheduled for Feb. 29, March 1 and March 2.

The IBEW filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) late final month requesting a union election. More than half of 673 eligible staff have already signed playing cards pledging to help the organizing drive, HuffPost has discovered. The plant has a complete workforce of practically 900.

The union push marks the second try up to now few years to rally the plant’s staff to collectively discount a contract. That the ability isn’t already unionized is moderately uncommon for the nuclear energy business.

Just 6% of staff within the U.S. non-public sector are represented by unions. But greater than a 3rd of staff within the nuclear vitality business are organized, in accordance with a 2017 survey carried out by the IBEW, leading to wages that sometimes exceed these in renewable vitality or fossil fuels. That quantity has stayed largely flat — or presumably declined — as nuclear energy vegetation shut down in recent times and laid off staff. But South Carolina has lengthy had the bottom charge of unionization within the nation — a streak U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics knowledge confirmed once more final month — due to legal guidelines that favor employers over staff.

The manufacturing facility is one among three owned by the Pennsylvania-based nuclear large Westinghouse Electric Company, however the one one with no unionized workforce. The other two fuel-fabrication amenities are in England and Sweden.

But organized labor bookends the U.S. provide chain. The Blairsville, Pennsylvania, manufacturing facility the place Westinghouse churns out the components the employees in South Carolina are utilizing to assemble the gas rods is a union plant. That gas usually leads to reactors operated by union staff on the federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority’s fleet of nuclear energy vegetation.

“As a union member, I take pride knowing that the fuel rods we load into our core at Watts Bar have been touched by union members at the beginning of the process,” Trip Geiger, an IBEW-represented assistant reactor operator on the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee, mentioned in a promotional video the union made to spice up the organizing drive in South Carolina. “I’d like to be able to say they’re touched at the middle of the process, from production to assembly at your plant to installing those same fuel rods in our core and producing power.”

The facility presses powdered uranium into pellets which can be then assembled into rectangular gas rods that go into reactors. Fuel from the plant generates roughly 10% of U.S. electrical energy.

An aerial view of the Westinghouse Electric Company’s Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina.

Following many years of static demand as nuclear vitality fell into decline, the U.S. is inching towards building extra reactors at dwelling and abroad because the world races to wean off fossil fuels and discover alternate options to photo voltaic and wind energy that use less land and minerals — and produce a lot steadier and higher volumes of electrical energy.

The U.S. is even difficult Moscow’s near-monopoly on exports of nuclear expertise and uranium, with Westinghouse now manufacturing gas rods that work within the Russian-designed reactors used broadly in Eastern Europe.

“Our demand keeps rising, and a lot of that has pushed our plant to where we’re at now,” mentioned an worker who has spent greater than a decade working on the plant.

“What I try to tell people at the plant is now would be the time to organize because we certainly have the upper hand,” mentioned the employee, who spoke to HuffPost on situation of anonymity out of worry of reprisal from administration. “This isn’t an industry where you can just hire anybody to replace people, it takes training.”

A spokesman for Westinghouse didn’t reply to a request for remark. But the union accused the corporate of threatening staff with cuts to advantages in a complaint filed final week with the NLRB.

The Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility first tried to unionize many years in the past. Employees there most lately made an organizing push in 2018, a 12 months after Westinghouse — then owned by the Japanese industrial large Toshiba — filed for chapter amid mounting billion-dollar price overruns on a challenge to construct the primary of a brand new sort of reactor at an influence plant in Georgia.

At the time, older staff on the facility frightened the organizing drive would price them their retirement plans. The IBEW solely takes on campaigns if the 10% of the workforce inside the ability volunteer to assist arrange the remainder of the corporate, a threshold the union mentioned the Westinghouse plant failed to achieve till final spring.

But staff quickly noticed their pensions weren’t secure anyway. Westinghouse eradicated worker pensions as a part of its monetary restructuring, and staff noticed that was a lot simpler to do in South Carolina than on the plant in Blairsville.

“Our demand keeps rising… What I try to tell people at the plant is now would be the time to organize because we certainly have the upper hand.”

– Worker on the Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility

After the failed unionization effort six years in the past, Westinghouse started implementing draconian shift schedules and forcing staff to work seven days in a row to profit from time beyond regulation on weekends, in accordance with the IBEW and the employee HuffPost interviewed. Workers sometimes earn high salaries, they mentioned. However, the health insurance coverage modified to 1 that supplied much less protection. When groups on the plant asked the corporate to rent extra staff to assist with the rising demand, the worker mentioned administration rebuffed the request, saying there wasn’t sufficient cash.

“It’s funny, the amount of money that I see them waste on projects that don’t work out or were totally wrong from the state, it might be $100,000 or more and nobody bats an eye at that,” the employee mentioned. “But if you ask for more time off or say, ‘Hey, we can use a few more people to help lighten the load,’ it’s, ‘We can’t do that, we don’t have the money to do that.’”

The COVID-19 pandemic was one other issue, mentioned Melissa Reyes, the IBEW’s lead organizer within the Carolinas.

“What really dawned on them is that, even through COVID and whatever else, those people had to show up for work every single day,” Reyes mentioned.

“HR didn’t have to show up every day. The front office didn’t have to show up every day. But they sure did,” she mentioned of the economic staff on the plant. “So it really empowered them and made them realize, ‘This place doesn’t run without us. They can’t survive without us.’”

Despite what the IBEW mentioned was widespread help on the facility, unionizing within the Palmetto State gained’t be simple.

In a speech, two days after the union filed paperwork with the NLRB, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster mentioned, “One thing we do not need is more labor unions” within the state, in accordance with the South Carolina Daily Gazette, which first reported on the petition final week.

McMaster was referring to an ongoing authorized struggle with the International Longshoremen’s Association over securing union contracts for crane operators on the Port of Charleston. Asked by the nonprofit information outlet in regards to the Westinghouse marketing campaign, a spokesperson for the GOP governor mentioned all unions characterize “a clear danger to our prosperity.” (Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is running for the Republican presidential nomination partly on her union-busting document.)

But Westinghouse paid its former top executive Daniel Roderick $19 million the 12 months earlier than he was pushed out of his seat as chairman of the board amid the corporate’s earlier monetary collapse in 2017. Westinghouse emerged from Chapter 11 protections in 2018 when Toshiba sold the company to the non-public fairness large Brookfield.

In 2022, a three way partnership between the Canadian uranium-mining behemoth Cameco and Brookfield Renewable Partners, a subsidiary of the non-public fairness firm that owns zero-carbon vitality property, purchased Westinghouse in what was broadly seen as a bullish wager on the way forward for nuclear energy. The deal closed in November.

Since then, anytime the managers present an replace on the corporate’s funds at all-hands conferences, the fuel-fabrication division “is always in the green” whereas the opposite providers Westinghouse gives are “usually in the yellow or red,” the longtime South Carolina facility employee mentioned.

“Our plant especially is the money maker for Westinghouse. We’ve been told that for years, that our plant almost single-handedly keeps Westinghouse afloat,” the employee mentioned. “The fact is, they need us right now.”

Dave Jamieson contributed reporting.

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