Above center, Downers Grove, Ill. Local 15 Business Manager Terry McGoldrick speaks at one of several events held over the past three years throughout Illinois to help save IBEW and other union nuclear plant jobs at generating stations like Rockford’s Byron, above left, and Chicago’s Dresden, above right. Other efforts included hosting legislators’ visits to job sites. Photo credits: Creative Commons/Flickr user Michael Kappel (Byron); Creative Commons/Flickr user Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Dresden)

On Sept. 15, Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker signed into law the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, the culmination of nearly three years of intensive effort by members of the IBEW and other organizations to save hundreds of nuclear power plant jobs in the Land of Lincoln.

"I got to tell you, I’ve been in the IBEW for 37 years, worked for the local for 20, and this was nothing short of amazing,” said Downers Grove, Ill., Local 15 Business Manager Terry McGoldrick, who, with Local 15 Vice President Bill Phillips, was on hand for the bill’s outdoor signing ceremony at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

Pritzker’s timely signature on Senate Bill 2408 came just as Exelon, the nuclear energy subsidiary of the Illinois-regulated Commonwealth Edison, was set to start shutting down the Byron Nuclear Generating Station near Rockford. Local 15 represents more than 300 workers at Byron as well as another 300-plus at the Dresden nuclear facility in suburban Chicago, which was set to begin its own long-planned closure process in November.

Thanks to the new law, the two stations will undergo refueling and continue operating for at least another five years.

Exelon also can start filling around 650 vacancies across the state and begin more than $300 million worth of improvement projects, which means even more job opportunities for IBEW members and apprentices.

“Exelon refueling outages put thousands of people to work in Illinois, providing jobs to skilled local and regional union and tradespeople,” McGoldrick told the Clinton [Ill.] Herald.

SB 2408 also helps IBEW workers at the Quad Cities and Clinton nuclear plants, which the union worked hard to successfully rescue in 2016, and the measure will keep the IBEW’s workers busy at the Braidwood and LaSalle nuclear plants, too.

Meanwhile, Springfield Local 51 workers at the Clinton nuclear plant also will benefit from SB 2408, as will hundreds of members of a handful of IBEW inside locals, who find work during nuclear plant refueling and maintenance periods.

International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said that this latest rescue measure was needed because cheap natural gas has made it hard for nuclear stations to compete with other sources of always-on baseload power generation.

“Nuclear power makes up 90% of Illinois’s clean-energy mix,” Stephenson said, “and these two plants alone [Byron and Dresden] supply nearly $63 million in tax revenue for their local communities.”

Also, Byron and Dresden directly and indirectly support thousands of middle-class jobs, and their closures would have wiped out their surrounding towns, noted McGoldrick, who lives about seven miles from the Byron plant.

The IBEW’s work on a rescue measure started almost immediately after Pritzker was elected governor in 2018, said Sixth District International Vice President David Ruhmkorff.

“You had an interesting dynamic from the start,” said Ruhmkorff, whose jurisdiction includes Illinois. In previous General Assemblies, it was often hard for labor to be a part of energy conversations, he said.

“Our role [as IBEW members] before had to be more grassroots,” Ruhmkorff said. “The utilities would come to us directly to work out a bill’s issues and then do the lobbying to get a bill passed.”

But during the current Assembly session, labor took the forefront, a change that allowed the IBEW to really show its strength.

“Our State Conference sat down and devised a plan,” Sixth District International Representative Paul Noble said. “We brought in a lobbyist and an expert with [public utility commission] experience.”

The conference also worked with a host of interested parties, such as generation companies like NRG Energy and Vistra Corp., as well as renewable energy companies and other labor and progressive environmental organizations to back legislative incentives for the wider deployment of solar and wind energy generation. The groups combined to form Climate Jobs Illinois, an alliance whose emphasis was more on saving solid, middle-class energy careers — and creating new ones — and less about bailing out nuclear plants owned by billion-dollar corporations.

“We negotiated with all of the stakeholders and tried to build a wide coalition around a roadmap to comprehensive energy legislation. It took lots of hours and lots of people,” Noble said.

“We personally spent 22 days down in Springfield,” McGoldrick said. “We knew we had to educate our legislators.” Sometimes, that meant taking state House and Senate members on personal plant tours. Other times, especially during the past year’s lockdowns to help stop the spread of COVID-19, virtual meetings and tours were held via Zoom teleconferencing.

“We even bought thousands of yard signs and spread them out all over Illinois,” McGoldrick said. “We’d never done this kind of stuff before.”

The massive investment in time, resources and energy paid off when the worker-friendly leaders of Illinois’s House and Senate let it be known that there would be no bill introduced without labor’s support. “We’re building political power so we can be better advocates for our members,” said Noble, adding that SB 2408 included labor standards that are considered the most robust in the country.

For example, the act requires project labor agreements and prevailing wages for utility-scale projects, and it creates a wealth of opportunities for union jobs and apprenticeships, especially within traditionally underserved minority communities.

Ultimately, SB 2408 was approved by wide margins in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly: 83-33 in the House of Representatives on Sept. 9, and 37-17 by the Senate four days later. In addition to providing funds for a wide range of clean and renewable energy initiatives, the new law provides $700 million in relief for all of Illinois’s nuclear power plants over the next five years while requiring Exelon to apply for any available federal assistance funds.

“Our union siblings in Illinois played a major role in helping get passed what is likely the most pro-worker, pro-union, pro-climate, and pro-equity legislation in our country to date,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO and a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125, wrote on Twitter following the signing ceremony.

“People think politics don’t matter, but you’ve got to think about who you vote for,” added McGoldrick, who also gave kudos to the Local 15 members at the Byron and Dresden plants. “They worked shorthanded through two outages and during a pandemic,” he said. “They were motivation for us. I’m very proud of what we accomplished.”