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Mike Elk

Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times

June 15th, 2012 1:32 PM

Scabs Brought in To Run Nuclear Power Plant During Lockout in Mass.

Crossposted from In These Times Working blog

On June 5, a number of replacement workers and outside managers were brought in to operate Entergy's Plymouth Station nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts. While the replacement workers have experience working as technicians in other nuclear power plants in the United States, the union claims that the technicians lack the site-specific experience needed to operate a plant as complex as Plymouth Station.  One replacement worker who spoke to Working In These Times worries that a mix of replacement workers and Entergy managers with little experience operating the Plymouth Station could cause a catastrophe.

The lockout of 250 workers began after Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 369 and Entergy were unable to agree to a contract. Entergy had pushed for the elimination of disability insurance, of life insurance for workers over age 55, and of seniority in the plant, as well as for cuts to workers’ retirement and medical plans. The company also wanted to maintain the right to make unilateral changes to workers’ retirement and medical plans whenever it wanted.

“What we want is protection down the road for our family” says union member John Barilaro. “It’s a risky business and people do get sick. And they really don’t care. They are just concerned about the bottom line.”

Entergy Spokesman Michael Bourne says Entergy decided to lock the workers out because the “union would not back away from their right to call a strike at any time without prior notification” after the union contract expired Tuesday night. But Dan Hurley, president of UWUA Local 369, disputes this charge. Hurley says that while the union would not give up their legal right to strike after the contract expired, it was willing to give the company advance notice of a strike, so as to comply with federal laws.

One of the replacement workers at the plant claims that Entergy has not engaged in good faith dealings with them, either. The subcontractor that hired the replacement workers, DZ Atlantic, never informed them that they could be brought in to scab on union members when they signed their contracts. After being told that they would be brought in to scab, the replacement workers were promised that they would only have to cross the picket line once in a company-provided bus and that there would be housing available on site for them.

However, the replacement workers have had to spend their own money to stay in nearby motels and have had to drive across the picket line several times. One replacement worker, who only agreed to speak if granted anonymity, complained that a female replacement worker had the hood of her car damaged when a locked out worker on the picket line fell on it. Beyond the dangers posed by having to cross the picket line, the replacement worker worries that his colleagues' inexperience in running the day-to-day operations of the Pilgrim Station nuclear plant could cause a major accident.

“Currently, in the plant, they are like, 'If it is not broke, don’t fix it,' ”says the replacement worker. “The people that I work with are very professional. However, there are situations that could come up that worry me. I am not going to say this or that could happen because no one can predict that. However, I am saying if there was a catastrophe on a scale like Fukushima, management would not handle it the way they should.”

Union members are upset that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has allowed replacement workers to operate the plant. “The NRC stands on the sideline about this. It’s really disheartening that they take a backseat to the company,” says Barilaro.

But the NRC says it has been long aware of a possible lockout and that it approved Entergy’s contingency operating plan. “We reviewed the plans and made sure they were qualified to do what they were assigned to do,” says NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci. “We reviewed the qualifications and continue to have enhanced oversight at the plant to make sure the plant is operated safely”.

That still hasn't assuaged the fears of local residents and politicians. In a letter to the NRC, Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Bill Keating (D-Mass.) asked whether the agency can "truly ensure that the residents of Massachusetts living near the plant are as safe in the event of an emergency today as they were when the Union workers were operating the plant earlier this week?"

In the meantime, UWUA Local 369 has filed NLRB charges against Entergy. The union claims that Entergy failed to provide necessary information about medical plans during contract negotiations, made a series of “coercive, threatening statements” against workers prior to a contract vote last week, and videotaped workers walking the picket line without their consent, thus violating Massachusetts two-party consent law .

“Entergy’s complete and utter disregard for the safety and well-being of Massachusetts workers and communities has been well documented, and this NLRB complaint exemplifies how the company chooses to do business,” says Hurley. “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.”

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