The bond between nuclear workers in the UK and the U.S. was strengthened at the Atomic Energy Workers Council meeting that was held Sept. 26-29 in Washington, D.C.
Unite Regional Officer Peter McIntosh and Unite Senior Representative David Alexander talked about Unite and the nuclear sector in Britain and Scotland.
“I hope this is the start of a long relationship between UK and US nuclear workers,” McIntosh said.
This was the first meeting between nuclear workers from the two countries and resulted from the USW and Unite forming the new international union, Workers Uniting, at the USW convention two years ago.
USW members asked questions about the contractors in the UK and such topics as the treatment of workers who are sickened by their workplace exposure to radiation and toxic substances, the handling of health and safety at the work sites and medical surveillance of former and retired nuclear workers.
McIntosh and Alexander also listened to the delegates give reports about the issues and problems at each of their sites. They asked questions and McIntosh remarked,” We have similar issues, more common then you think.”
Stronger Worker Protections
At the end of the first day, International Vice President Kip Phillips, who heads the USW’s atomic sector, remarked how far advanced the UK is compared to the U.S. in terms of its health care system, social benefits and labor laws.
“They’re far advanced in that they don’t have to negotiate over everything—healthcare, retiree medical care, overtime. It’s set by legislation. We’re in the stone age when it comes to labor law,” Phillips said. “Hopefully we can address employment issues with our common employers internationally.”
Having this dialogue between nuclear workers from both unions is important because it strengthens our solidarity.
“I think the biggest benefit of our Workers Uniting alliance is that if one of our joint employers is pushing a certain agenda in the UK, we can learn about it before it is implemented in the U.S.,” said Bobby Espinoza, USW Local 9477 president at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M. “Our Unite brothers and sisters can learn from us about a bad U.S. employer that goes over to the UK. Such employers tend to have the same mentality no matter where they go.”
Government officials from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are always invited to speak before the council because their department funds the contracts that the contractors bid on for work done at the nuclear sites. They also oversee and enforce those contracts and regulate health and safety and training at the sites.
These government officials can intervene for the atomic locals when there are problems with the contractors over issues like health and safety and training. They make the contractors fix the problems and follow provisions that guarantee worker involvement.
Government officials who spoke and listened to the delegates’ concerns were Glenn S. Podonsky, chief health, safety and security officer for the Office of Health, Safety and Security (DOE); Charlie O’Dell, chief of staff, Nuclear Energy department (DOE); Colin Jones, senior policy advisor, Office of Environmental Management (DOE); and Debbie Swichkow with the Office of Policy Integration and Communication (DOE).
Speaking with such officials brings results. A member discussed a problem with a new contractor at his facility with one of the officials and by the end of the day the contractor was ordered to resolve the situation.
Kara Colton, program director for the Energy Communities Alliance, gave an update on the Energy Parks Initiative, a national DOE program that is billed as a way to leverage assets, like surplus federal lands, and highly trained work forces to address energy and environmental needs in the U.S.
Further Collaboration Planned
This meeting with the Unite delegation provided a strong start to the Workers Uniting partnership in the nuclear sector. To further build solidarity, communication will be done through email, starting with an exchange of USW atomic local union officers’ and unit chairs’ union or home email addresses with those from Unite. Both unions will send a list of their local unions, contractors, the type of work done (example: operations, cleanup), and the number of workers represented.
Since Unite representatives have visited the USW’s Hanford, Washington nuclear facility, the partnership will tie into the connection between the Hanford stewards and Unite representatives. Information about Unite’s nuclear sector will be placed in the newsletter that is being started for USW’s atomic workers.
Other ideas to push the alliance forward were to create a Workers Uniting atomic council, have a Unite atomic steering committee meeting scheduled before or after the USW Atomic Energy Workers Council meeting, and to have exchange visits between Unite senior representatives and USW local union leaders.
“Our Workers Uniting alliance benefits everyone,” said Local 652 member Henry Littleford, who works at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “If we can get the communication lines going between our local USW unions and counterparts in Unite, it increases our opportunity to fight battles and prepare for them.”