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September 2016

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'Unescorted Access' Changes Threaten to
Leave Nuclear Workers at Risk

Nuclear plant owners want the ability to strip workers of their security clearance without arbitration, but IBEW leaders are working to stop the effort before it becomes law.

On June 6, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 3-1 to move forward an industry recommendation to eliminate arbitration in cases where employers revoked so-called "unescorted access authorization," which employees must have in order to work in a nuclear plant.

And while the vote was simply a recommendation to begin the rulemaking process, it does mean that the IBEW and nuclear industry workers are readying for their second fight on the matter in three years.

"This is really a question of whether or not an employer can unilaterally fire a union-represented employee without cause," said IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter. "If this NRC rule goes through, a plant owner or manager who doesn't like the way an employee is looking at him could not only fire that person, but they can effectively make sure they never work in the nuclear industry again."

Under current rules, when an employee has his or her access revoked by a nuclear licensee, that person turns to the union for assistance. If the union files a grievance that goes unresolved, the parties end up in arbitration run by a neutral third-party.

The nuclear industry argued in its petition that if licensees are ultimately responsible for safety at their plants, then they need wide-ranging authority to control access, even if it means firing an employee with no appeals process in place. But courts have repeatedly rejected that reasoning, arguing that reasonable arbitration is a simple matter of fairness that has no negative impact on security.

Members of Congress, too, are siding with workers. In May, after a concerted effort by the IBEW utility and political departments, 30 U.S. senators and 133 members of the House of Representatives signed letters to NRC Chairman Stephen G. Burns urging him to reject the NRC's staff petition that recommended the industry-backed changes.

The effort, led by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Brady, failed to stop the process at its first hurdle, but it did seem to have some effect on the chairman's thinking. In his statement accompanying the vote, Burns wrote, "My approval of rulemaking initiation does not come without reservations. I have yet to be convinced on the merits that a change to our regulations is warranted."

Burns' statement gives hope that he may eventually side with workers on the issue, but it does move forward a process that could ultimately rule in favor of plant owners. That should worry all nuclear industry employees, said International Representative Anna Jerry.

Commissioner Jeff Baran was the only member of the NRC to side unequivocally with workers, arguing in the statement accompanying his vote that, when it wrote the rule in 1991, the commission expressly welcomed third-party review of unescorted access decisions, and that attempts to upend the process now were unnecessary. "It is not appropriate for the NRC to interfere with the collective bargaining process by re-writing the agreements reached by licensees and unions," he wrote.

Nevertheless, over the next 18-24 months, NRC staff are expected to move forward with the rulemaking process before opening it up to a public comment period, much like they did when this issue came up in 2013. During the last push, every IBEW local with members employed at nuclear facilities wrote to the NRC, and Jerry expects that the same sort of effort will be undertaken this time around.

Already, several dozen locals have voiced their disapproval directly to Burns, and those letters, along with the ones from Congress, are believed to have impacted his thinking. Notably, both Burns and Commissioner Kristine Svinicki requested that NRC staff immediately reach out to the IBEW and other affected labor organizations for input rather than waiting for the public comment period.

"It's nice to hear that we may get to have some conversations with NRC staff as this process moves forward," Jerry said, "but we can't let our guard down on this for a second. The changes the nuclear industry is talking about affect people's lives and can end their careers, not to mention the fact that a rule change would completely undermine the collective bargaining process. As far as we're concerned, the system is working right now, and we're going to fight as hard as we have to to protect our members."


The cooling towers of Tennessee's Watts Bar nuclear plant could be off limits to out-of-favor workers if the nuclear industry wins the right to restrict access.

Photo used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user Tennessee Valley Authority

This Vermont Local is the First in the State to
Install Tesla's Home Battery

Tesla doesn't just make electric cars. It also makes batteries, the kind you can use to power your home. And if you live in Vermont, you'll need a member of Montpelier, Vt., Local 300 to install it for you.

"It's an exciting opportunity and I'm glad to be a part of it," said Scott Millette, a journeyman wireman with Peck Electric, a contractor with Green Mountain Power and IBEW signatory. GMP is the area utility that employs Local 300 members and contracted with Peck for the battery installation.

Millette was one of three who were trained in a "train the trainer" course in January at Tesla's Fremont, California, site on the Powerwall, a lithium ion home battery that can serve as a backup electricity source, something that appeals to Vermonters all too familiar with winter storms and power outages. It can also use electricity generated from solar panels. What's more, the utility company can tap into this energy source, helping to meet demand during peak hours.

"You can charge it during the middle of the night and dispatch it when prices are the highest and when the grid system needs energy the most. It truly is a revolutionary step forward in terms of how we think about energy delivery," said Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell in an interview with WCAX, a local news outlet.

GMP is the first utility in the country offering the battery, according to its press release, and Local 300 members are the only people in New England doing this type of work, said Jeffrey Wimette, Local 300 business manager. And business is booming. About 20 have been installed so far, but the waiting list is 500 customers long.

"Everybody wants them," Wimette said. "They can't make them fast enough."

For those outside of Vermont, the batteries can be purchased, but installation is typically handled by third parties, like Solar City.

There have been off-grid battery backups for years, but those lead-acid versions take up a lot of space and require a lot of maintenance. And they're not very environmentally friendly. With Tesla, you just install it and it's good for 10 years, practically maintenance-free. And when the battery is done, Tesla recycles it, Millette said.

The installation takes about two days and involves programming specific to the Powerwall, Millette said. With the programming, customers have options, called power profiles, for how they will use their battery, with a solar array or without for example, and when they will essentially share it with GMP.

"It's a new technology with a lot of potential," Wimette said.

The Powerwalls work with an inverter that converts direct current electricity into an alternating current that is used by a customer's lights, appliances and devices, according to Tesla. The batteries can be charged by solar panels or by the utility, usually at night or during a similar off-peak time. Customers can also use a website portal to see how much energy they're using and how their battery is performing, Millette said.

The 6.4 kilowatt batteries, which are about the size of a car-top carrier, cost $6,500 and have about four to six hours of storage capability, depending on how it's used. Next generation versions are expected to be higher kilowatt, with more storage, Millette said.

As with all new technology, there are some bugs to work out, but Millette says most of the customers are pleased.

"We're addressing the problems as they come up, and I'm confident we'll have even more happy customers in the future," Millette said.


Montpelier, Vt., Local 300 members like Jazmine Thompson are training in the latest battery technology from Tesla.

RENEW Opening Opportunities in New Places

David Hoque works to convince businesses throughout the South to partner with the IBEW. It isn't easy, even with the high quality of work performed by IBEW members, due to decades-old right-to-work laws and a hostility shown by many people toward organized labor.

But RENEW gives him another valuable tool, said Hoque, an international representative for business development in the Tenth District, which includes Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina and South Carolina. Many companies have invested in training their younger workers and helping them advance into leadership positions. They're impressed when they see the IBEW doing the same.

"I see the value in telling our potential customers, our future and current customers, that we are engaging our rank-and-file members," Hoque said. "We're focusing on our millennial generation."

That's where Matt McCoy comes in.

McCoy is an assistant business manager of Chattanooga, Tenn., Local 175 and RENEW coordinator for the Tenth District. Local 175 is the first Tenth District local to receive a RENEW charter.

McCoy is working closely with business managers to spread RENEW throughout the Tenth District. He's also working with Hoque to let businesses know the IBEW is committed over the long term to RENEW, an initiative to mobilize members 35 years and younger and provide leadership training to them.

"It's not just an immediate fix," he said. "We're going to be here. Whatever promises we make, we're going to keep them for the long haul."

Carolyn Williams, director of the Civic and Community Engagement Department, said younger members are more likely to listen to a peer like McCoy than older members. Leaders like him also make them more likely to lead in important activities, like organizing campaigns.

"Young workers bring a renewed energy and new ideas that can help us in solving the issues labor unions face in an ever-changing landscape," Williams said. "Education coupled with the enthusiasm young workers bring to the union can be a boost to organizing campaigns, whether internal or external, and is crucial to maintaining the IBEW's status in the labor movement."

Like the Code of Excellence, RENEW is another step the IBEW has taken in recent years to show businesses its members are committed to doing the highest quality work, Hoque said.

"When you're out talking to potential customers, who often are Fortune 500 companies or the major employer in the communities they serve, you try to show what the IBEW can bring to the table." Hoque said.

"A big part of our conversation is that unions are changing," he added. "We're trying to engage management."

International Representative Rachel Bryan said what Hoque and McCoy are doing is a good example of how RENEW touches all of the IBEW, not just younger members.

"We have to work together in an inter-generational partnership," said Bryan, who oversees the RENEW program. "We need each other, the mature member with institutional knowledge and experience and the younger worker who is tech savvy, energetic and pragmatic."

For McCoy, a challenge is empowering young IBEW members in the Tenth District to realize their importance.

"They think they're just starting a new job," said McCoy, 33, a journeyman lineman. "It's exciting teaching these younger members and getting them to realize they are part of something bigger."

He points out that Henry Miller was just 33 when he founded the IBEW. Young workers have played a role ever since.

"Anytime we bring in new members and swear them in, one of the first things I like to tell them is I have 12 years in the IBEW, but right now, you're just as much of a member as I am," McCoy said.