Nuclear Stalemate

Negotiations between the South Texas (Nuclear) Project and its union workers threaten to meltdown.

Nuclear Stalemate

The word "meltdown" -- when applied to a nuclear power plant -- conjures thoughts of broken reactors, released radioactive materials, and hospitals filling with cancer-ridden patients. A different kind of meltdown may be brewing at the South Texas Project -- the result of a contract dispute between workers and management.

Since January, the STP Nuclear Operating Company -- the nonprofit that oversees plant operations and whose board of directors includes representatives of Austin Energy -- and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Local 66) have been trying to negotiate a new contract. So far, so stalemate. Aside from annual wage increases (which the union endorses), STP's "last and best offer" has major sticking points, in the union's judgment, including language weakening worker protection and provisions undermining guarantees to fair overtime opportunities. The contract would also raise the employees' share of health benefits costs from 16% to 25%.

The most troublesome issue, however, is a clause requiring union employees to work alongside non-union employees hired to augment staff -- "provided," explanatory language in the contract states, "that the contractor paid a wage rate equal to or greater than the wage rates charged by the building and trades council for similar job duties." In other words, the contract would enable non-union workers to hold the same jobs as dues-paying IBEW members. "Unions generally don't do that," says Charlie Nelson, the Local 66 business representative who represents union members in contract negotiations. He believes the clause could dilute IBEW's bargaining unit and seriously weaken the union, and possibly lead toward a non-union shop. The 300 STP mechanics, electricians, technicians, and other workers represented by IBEW apparently feel the same: Since July 31, when IBEW's contract officially expired (but is still in force pending a new agreement), the members voted down two proposals forwarded by the company by margins of 99% and 98%.

The expired contract was approved in October of 1998 and passed "fairly easily," Nelson said. IBEW gave the company the right to contract out work to non-union employees as long as the contract workers didn't perform the same jobs as union members. Under the new company proposal, the union would have no way to verify that the nonunion employees would be earning the wages guaranteed in the contract, because that information isn't made public. Nelson fears the clause could create a majority of workers who don't earn the standard wage.

"It's like trying to mix two different cultures," Nelson says of the proposed clause. "It doesn't work very well. We're union for a reason."

Both sides agree that negotiations have been frustrating. STP spokesman Alan Mikus declined to comment on contract particulars, although he called the process "long and difficult ... but professional." STP believes its proposed contract is comparable to other IBEW nuclear power agreements nationwide, Mikus says, because the wage and benefit package exceeds market value.

Austin Energy Vice-President of Power Generation Andy Ramirez sits on the STP board of directors, but also declined comment on contract specifics. (The Chronicle has reviewed a copy of the current contract and the company's proposed changes.) Austin Energy's Nuclear and Coal Generation Director Clyde Canady calls the dispute "the most difficult matter I've seen since I've been working the nuclear and coal generation division." Part of the problem, he says, is that management had a tighter budget due to the combined effect of an economic downturn and "new market conditions" -- that is, state utility deregulation, which goes into effect January 1. Just how tight is unknown, since Austin Energy keeps its financial information confidential.

Since 1997, STP has been managed by its operating company, whose board of directors also includes plant staff and representatives from Houston-based Reliant Energy/HL&P, City Public Service of San Antonio, and Corpus Christi's Central Power and Light (a subsidiary of Ohio-based American Electric Power). Each utility must answer to its own customers as well as to local and state governmental entities. "Right now, the atmosphere in Austin is that we are losing sales and revenues, and are not hooking up customers like a year ago," Canady said. "We have to be careful with our budgets. That's difficult to say to a union."

Jack Getman, attorney and labor scholar at UT's School of Law, says clauses requiring union members to work alongside nonunion employees are "perfectly legal" and not uncommon, particularly in right-to-work states such as Texas. However, Getman noted, "It certainly weakens the union, because they don't get the dues." According to Nelson, the union has already been weakened in recent years as IBEW members have left STP through attrition and retirement. "The company's really not replacing those people," he said.

Depending on power demand, around 400 megawatts of power is transmitted each day from STP's Wadsworth facility to Austin. In the event of a walkout -- which both sides consider unlikely -- the company would continue operations without interrupting services, Canady said.

Meanwhile, IBEW and STP reps say they will continue meeting. Mediators from the Mediation and Conciliation Service (an independent, federal agency that helps resolve contract disputes) are assisting with negotiations. Recently, STP made a commitment to negotiate until an agreement is reached, Nelson said. Although the last meeting "didn't go real well," Nelson said he's "guardedly optimistic."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

South Texas Project, STP Nuclear Operating Company, Austin Energy, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Charlie Nelson, Alan Mikus, Andy Ramirez, Clyde Canady, Reliant Energy Corp., City Public Service of San Antonio, Central Power and Light, America

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