Workers at the largest U.S. factory that assembles fuel rods used in nuclear reactors are forming a union.
About 700 employees at the Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility, located 25 minutes southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, will vote on whether to form a union represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Elections are scheduled for February 29th, March 1st, and March 2nd.
IBEW is petition Late last month, it requested the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a union election. More than half of the 673 employees targeted have already signed cards pledging their support for the organizing effort, according to a HuffPost survey. The total number of employees at this plant is approximately 900.
The union push would be the second attempt in the past few years to rally workers at the plant to secure a contract. It is rather unusual for the nuclear industry that this facility has not yet organized a union.
just 6% Private sector employees in the United States are represented by labor unions. However, one report suggests that more than a third of nuclear industry workers are unionized. 2017 survey It is implemented by IBEW and results in wages that typically exceed those of renewable energy and fossil fuels. With nuclear power plants shutting down in recent years, that number has remained about the same, or perhaps even declined. was fired Worker. However, South Carolina has long had the lowest labor unionization rate in the nation, the lowest consecutively according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Confirmed Again last month, thanks to legislation that favors employers over workers.
The plant is one of three owned by Pennsylvania-based nuclear power giant Westinghouse Electric Company, but it is the only one that is not unionized.of the other two Fuel manufacturing facilities are located in the United Kingdom and Sweden.
But organized labor threatens the U.S. supply chain. The plant in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, where Westinghouse mass-produces the parts that workers in South Carolina use to assemble fuel rods, is a union factory. That fuel often ends up in reactors operated by union members at the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority Nuclear Power Plant.
“As union members, we are proud to know that the fuel rods we load into Watts Bar’s core are touched by our members at the beginning of the process,” said Watts Bar’s IBEW. said Trip Geiger, assistant lead reactor operator. A nuclear power plant in Tennessee was mentioned in an article. promotion video The union was created to further the organizing movement in South Carolina. “We want to be able to say that we’re touching them along the way, from production in your factory to assembly to installing the same fuel rods in the reactor core to generate electricity.”
The facility compresses powdered uranium into pellets, assembles them into rectangular fuel rods, and feeds them into nuclear reactors.fuel from factory Approximately 10% generation of US electricity.
After decades of static demand as nuclear energy declines, the U.S. is on track to build more nuclear reactors. at home and abroad As the world seeks to move away from fossil fuels and seek alternative energy sources to replace solar and wind power generation, land is scarce and mineral —and produce more More stable, larger volume Electrical.
The United States even challenging of moscow almost exclusive Collaborating with Westinghouse on nuclear technology and uranium exports Currently in production A fuel rod that works in a Russian-designed nuclear reactor widely used in Eastern Europe.
“Demand continues to increase, and many of those influences have led the factory to its current situation,” said an employee who has worked at the factory for more than 10 years.
“What I’m trying to get across to the people in the factory is that now is the time to organize because we definitely have an advantage,” said the official, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from management. This employee said in an interview with HuffPost. “This is not an industry where you can just hire someone to replace you. You need training.”
A Westinghouse spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. But the union accused the company of threatening workers with benefits cuts. complaint It was submitted to the NLRB last week.
The Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility first attempted to unionize decades ago. In 2018, a year after Westinghouse (then owned by Japanese industrial giant Toshiba) filed for bankruptcy amid mounting overruns of billions of dollars on a project to build the first of its new nuclear reactors, employees of Westinghouse were laid off. members recently promoted organizing. Georgia power plant.
At the time, older workers at the facility worried that the organizing efforts would jeopardize their retirement plans. IBEW will only join the campaign if 10% of the employees at the facility volunteer to help organize the rest of the company, but the Westinghouse plant did not reach that threshold until last spring, according to the union. He said he couldn’t do it.
However, workers soon realized that their pensions were not secure anyway. Westinghouse eliminated employee pensions as part of its financial restructuring, but employees found it much easier in South Carolina than at the Blairsville factory.
“Our demand continues to increase…I would say to the people in the factories, now is the time to organize, because we definitely have an advantage.”
– Workers at the Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility
After a failed unionization effort six years ago, Westinghouse instituted strict shift schedules to benefit from weekend overtime, giving employees seven days in a row, according to workers interviewed by IBEW and HuffPost. They say they started forcing them to work. Workers are said to typically earn high salaries. However, health insurance has changed to one with less coverage. When the team at the factory asked the company to hire more employees to meet increased demand, the workers said management denied the request, citing a lack of funds.
“The funny thing is, they could be wasting $100,000 or more on projects that don’t work or are completely wrong from the state, and no one pays any attention to it.” said the worker. “But when you ask for more time off or say, ‘We could hire a few more people to lighten the load,’ they say, ‘We can’t do that, we don’t have the money to do that.'”
Carolina IBEW lead organizer Melissa Reyes said the COVID-19 pandemic was another factor.
“What they really realized was that they had to come to work every day, whether it was COVID or any other situation,” Reyes said.
“Human resources people didn’t have to come to work every day. Front offices didn’t have to come to work every day. But they certainly did,” she said of the factory’s industrial workers. “So it really empowered them and made them realize, ‘This place can’t exist without us.'” They can’t live without us. ”
Even though IBEW said it has widespread support within the facility, unionizing in the Palmetto State will not be easy.
In a speech two days after unions filed their paperwork with the NLRB, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster said in the state that “one thing we don’t need is more unions,” according to the paper. That’s true.” south carolina daily reportfirst reported on the petition last week.
McMaster was referring to an ongoing legal battle with the International Longshoremen’s Association to secure union contracts for crane operators at the Port of Charleston. Asked by a nonprofit news outlet about Westinghouse’s campaign, a spokesperson for the Republican governor said all unions are a “clear danger to our prosperity.” (Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is running for some of the Republican presidential nominations.) About her union-busting record. )
But Westinghouse paid a salary to a former CEO Daniel Roderick was paid $19 million the year before he was ousted as chairman of the board following the company’s previous bankruptcy in 2017. Westinghouse was removed from Chapter 11 protection by Toshiba in 2018. sold the company to Brookfield, a major private equity firm.
In 2022, a joint venture between Canadian uranium mining giant Cameco and Brookfield Renewable Partners, a subsidiary of a private equity firm that owns zero-carbon energy assets, announced that a joint venture between Cameco, a Canadian uranium mining giant, and Brookfield Renewable Partners, a subsidiary of a private equity firm that owns zero-carbon energy assets, will generate energy savings in what was widely seen as a bullish bet on the future of nuclear power. Acquired Ching House. Power.transaction closed in November.
Since then, whenever management has provided an update on the company’s finances at an all-hands meeting, the fuel production division has “always been profitable,” while other services provided by Westinghouse have “usually been in the yellow.” “It’s in a red state,” said the long-time South Wales company. said a facility official in the Carolinas.
“Our factories in particular are a cash cow for Westinghouse. We’ve been told for years that our factories almost single-handedly keep Westinghouse afloat,” the workers said. Told. “The fact of the matter is, they need us right now.”
Dave Jamieson contributed reporting.