N.C. nuke guards get union contract under unusual circumstances

Ongoing labor woes at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris plant illustrate security problems still afflicting potential terror targets in the post-9/11 world

More than two years after they voted to unionize with the Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America, the security officers at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear power plant near Raleigh, N.C. finally have a contract. It came after a protracted fight with the guards' direct employer -- Securitas, the world's largest private security firm -- and involved the firing of numerous union supporters and the intervention of the National Labor Relations Board, which found the company guilty of bargaining in bad faith.

But in an unusual twist, the union members didn't ratify the contract -- the union's international did. And the still-precarious situation faced by the Harris security officers illustrates ongoing security vulnerabilities in the post-9/11 world.

Some background: Three years ago, Harris guards approached the nuclear watchdog group N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network to report serious problems with plant security after their concerns were ignored by company officials and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Among the threats they identified were malfunctioning doors leading to vital parts of the facility, widespread cheating on security certification tests, and efforts to discourage employees from reporting on-the-job injuries, resulting in guards working at less than full physical capacity. The workers blamed the problems on a corporate culture focused on containing costs. N.C. WARN and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed formal complaints with the NRC, the NRC Inspector General, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.

In 2006, the NRC confirmed a number of charges in the initial complaint. And last year, in the first regulatory action of its kind since 9/11, the NRC fined Progress $65,000 for the confirmed violations.

At the same time the guards were trying to get the plant's security problems fixed, they were taking steps to improve their working conditions by organizing a union. Among the primary reasons cited by the guards for unionizing was overwork and fatigue -- significant problems throughout the industry after the 9/11 attacks, when the NRC ordered facilities to boost security after evidence surfaced that al-Qaeda had considered targeting nuclear power plants. In the summer of 2006, the Harris guards voted in the union in a close election.

The SPFPA expected that the ensuing contract negotiations would be difficult given Securitas' open hostility toward the union, and their expectations were met. Many union supporters were fired in what appeared to be a concerted effort to intimidate workers, and early versions of the contract offered up by the company actually took away more than 30 benefits that were already enjoyed by the guards. After the NLRB's intervention, Securitas gave back most of those takeaways, but its best and final offer refused to reinstate modest pay raises that had already been promised before the union vote. The guards' representatives balked at signing the contract without the pay raises.

Here's SPFPA President Emeritus Gene McConville (in photo at right) explaining what happened next in a letter being sent to the guards:

The SPFPA had two options in responding to [Securitas'] offer. We could have very easily walked away from this situation and left all of you at the mercy of your Employer. That would mean that you all would remain "at will" employees. We have decided that walking away would not be in your best interest and we will not do so.

The option that we selected is to have the International Executive Board ratify the agreement and to work very hard to represent you during the one year agreement. We hope that during that year, you will get to appreciate the many advantages of being represented by our Union.

Under the SPFPA's constitution, only members can vote on union ratification. But since none of the guards was paying union dues yet, there were still technically no members. In such a situation, the International has the authority to ratify, which it did. This means that for the year-long term of the contract, the guards enjoy certain rights -- such as seniority protections -- that they did not previously have.

"Our feeling was this was the right thing to do," McConville tells Facing South. "These people went out on a limb, and we didn't want to just cut that limb off."

What will happen after that year is up is uncertain at best. In the meantime, though, representatives of the watchdog groups that initially raised concerns about the security implications of the Harris guards' poor working conditions are responding to news of the contract ratification with cautious optimism.

Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear security expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that resolving doubts over the contract's status is most likely a positive thing since uncertainty at work creates stress and distractions -- a serious problem for nuclear security guards' performance. He also reports that SPFPA has taken steps to improve security at other facilities where it represents guards. For example, when the South Texas Project -- a commercial nuclear power plant owned by NRG Energy, CPS Energy and the City of Austin -- and NRC failed to address a number of security grievances at the facility, SPFPA turned to Washington and the larger Service Employees International Union and got the problems corrected.

N.C. WARN Executive Director Jim Warren also thinks having a contract in place for the Harris guards is a good thing -- but not a sure thing.

"It would seem that having a work force that can defend itself against reprisals for reporting violations, having to work hurt, and illegal overtime, etc. would be a plus for security," he says. "However, given the Securitas and Progress history, I wouldn't be surprised if the fight continues."