Locked out at a nuclear plant

June 11, 2012

Chris Morrill and Ann Coleman report on a lockout at a Massachusetts nuclear power plant--and argue that environmental activists have a stake in this fight.

SOME 250 workers are locked out at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Mass., as facility owner Entergy tries to squeeze more concessions from members of Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 369. Front and center among workers' concerns are untrained scabs and management running a nuclear facility.

Two days after workers voted overwhelmingly to reject the final contract offer by their employer, Entergy responded by escorting UWUA workers off-site at midnight on June 5. Since then, the union has organized round-the-clock pickets to protest the lockout at the facility 45 miles south of Boston.

At the heart of Entergy's demands is increasing workers' health care burden. While Pilgrim workers already pay 25 percent of health care costs, Entergy is seeking to double that amount--effectively a huge wage cut as families languish during the worst recession in decades.

But it's not as if Entergy is hurting. The company rakes in over $1 million in profits every day from Pilgrim, and Entergy owns several other lucrative power plants around the country in states like Michigan, Arkansas and Vermont. Just last year, Chairman and CEO J. Wayne Leonard made $18 million.

Locked-out workers rally outside the Pilgrim Nuclear Power plant
Locked-out workers rally outside the Pilgrim Nuclear Power plant

As if that wasn't enough, Entergy was recently awarded a 20-year extension by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Despite community opposition, the NRC guaranteed 20 years of profits for Entergy executives, denying a full investigation of long-term safety and environmental concerns.

Flush with profits and a guaranteed source of revenue at Pilgrim, Entergy is seizing an opportunity much like employers across the country. The weakness of organized labor and the recession has given Entergy the confidence to try to extract more concessions from its workers.

But Pilgrim workers aren't taking it sitting down. In May, Pilgrim workers had voted more than 85 percent in favor of authorizing the local leadership to call a strike. When Entergy's final offer was put up for a vote last Sunday, workers overwhelmingly rejected it. There's a sense of anger and willingness to fight on the picket lines.

Beyond a willingness to fight, how can Pilgrim workers win? Building confidence among the rank-and-file members and grassroots support in the community will be key. As the lockout continues, there will be pressure for the union to give in to a bad contract. Workers' morale will need to remain high if they are to hold out against Entergy.

IN ADDITION to the battle between workers and Entergy, local activists have continued to organize for a nuke-free Plymouth. Groups like Pilgrim Watch have held their own pickets at the plant over the past few months, and have organized town referendums against Pilgrim's license renewal.

Rather than keeping these struggles separate, environmentalists should be front and center in aiding UWUA workers.

Many of the Pilgrim workers have been at the plant for more than 20 years and are witnesses to the devastation caused by deregulation of electricity. After the oil crisis of the 1970s, there was a drive by corporations and the federal government to deregulate energy, transportation and communications. In New England, deregulation was not complete until 1997.

With promises of more competition, cheaper energy prices and alternative generation options, deregulation has instead enabled a for-profit drive that disregards both the environment and workers.

Anti-nuke activists and workers can accomplish much more united than divided. With scab replacements running a facility that has the same design as the four reactors at Fukushima-Daiichi in Japan, community safety concerns are even graver than before the lockout. UWUA Local 369 President Dan Hurley said:

Entergy's complete and utter disregard for the safety and well-being of Massachusetts workers and communities has been well documented. Rather than head back to the bargaining table and negotiate in good faith, Entergy makes coercive statements and attempts to intimidate the workers who safely run Pilgrim Nuclear.

It's disgusting that Entergy CEO Wayne Leonard and Chief Nuclear Officer John Herron have made hundreds of millions of dollars over the past several years, and yet company executives lock out workers who not only have young children and bills to pay, but who keep our communities safe.

Companies like Entergy use everything they have to pit environmentalists against the workers. The drive for a more sustainable energy program must take on wider structural changes that curtail the power of the corporations by forcing the government to regulate their operations as a part of a broader government action plan on the environment.

Real worker and environmental reforms can and have been won when we collectively demand, organize and fight for them. As Chris Williams states in the book, Ecology and Socialism, "The self-regulating capitalist enterprise is a contradiction in terms. Only through governmental regulation such as occurred in the 1970s--changes to laws and the redirection of governmental subsidies through collective and determined action--can we hope to have an impact within the time frame given to us."

By building a mass community movement in favor of a "no concession" contract for workers and against nuclear power companies like Entergy, environmentalists can be instrumental in winning UWUA workers a good contract--and building trust with those who hold the power to transform our energy priorities to the interests of people rather than profits.

Union workers who have the training and expertise maintaining such facilities will also have the expertise to safely put it out to pasture, but only as a part of a long-term sustainable drive that holds the corporations and government accountable.

The stakes of this fight go beyond the Plymouth workers, or the safety of the Massachusetts Bay. UWUA Local 369 is currently in a contract battle with NSTAR as well, one of the largest energy providers in Massachusetts.

This fight is particularly significant for another of Entergy's holdings, Yankee Nuclear Plant in Vermont. In 10 weeks, workers' contracts are up at that plant as well. If the employer lockout succeeds, it would have a harmful ripple effect to this and other upcoming contract fights.

That's why there's an urgency to support locked-out Pilgrim workers and help them win in the here and now. If environmentalists and labor are able to unite, it could set a precedent for building a united movement for workers' rights and the beginning of a more sustainable energy plan for the planet.

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