Nuclear plant owners want the ability to strip workers of their security clearance without arbitration, but IBEW leaders are working hard 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.”

“Having your unescorted access authorization cancelled is essentially a career-ender,” said Downers Grove, Ill., Local 15 assistant business manager Bill Phillips, who represents nearly 1,600 employees at five Exelon nuclear plants. “Whether the employer had a good reason or not, no other nuclear plant is going to give you a job after that. You’re flagged in a federal database, and if the plant owners get their way, we’ll have no way to challenge that.”

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 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 impacted 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.”

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