The Electrical Worker online
June 2012

IBEW Nuclear Plant Workers Win Court Case
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You are wrongfully terminated by your employer. You file a grievance and an arbitrator finds in your favor. But you still can't go back to work because your employer won't grant you a security clearance. Several IBEW members and others who work in nuclear power plants have been living in this quandary. IBEW's general counsel took their cases to court, seeking justice for them and others who could end up on the outside looking in. And the Brotherhood won.

In a March 29 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the rights of unions to challenge in arbitration decisions by nuclear facility owners denying individuals unescorted access to their plants, which is a condition of employment. When companies deny that access, workers lose their jobs.

Utility Department International Representative Dave Mullen says, "Every organized worker in the nuclear industry benefits from this decision. The ruling marks a step forward for rights on the job and an organizing tool for locals in the nuclear sector."

For many years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission permitted workers in nuclear plants the right to have denials of access reviewed. In nonunion plants, access denials could be reviewed only by independent internal company personnel. In union plants, disputes over access could be arbitrated.

Then, after a 2009 review of NRC regulations by the Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear plant owners, including Exelon — the operator of nuclear generating facilities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois — decided that arbitration of access would no longer be available.

Downers Grove, Ill., Local 15 — which represents workers at five Exelon plants in the state — had won grievances appealing wrongful terminations of members. But the members were still denied unescorted access to their plants. They enlisted the support of IBEW's legal department.

The Chicago-area local union, representing 1,600 workers at Exelon, appealed to the district court to uphold the right to arbitrate their cases. The district court upheld Exelon's position, denying the union's right to arbitration.

International President Edwin D. Hill sent a letter to local unions with nuclear jurisdiction urging them not to change their collective bargaining agreement language on access denials based on arguments from companies that "the law has changed."

Hill wrote, "First, this decision is not the law. It is the opinion of one district court. I am hopeful that it will be reversed on appeal, and that other courts will disagree with it."

He was right. The IBEW appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which reversed the district court's decision, holding that the NRC had not departed from its long-standing position that parties to a collective bargaining agreement may agree to submit access denials to arbitration.

In another letter to locals with nuclear jurisdiction, President Hill says the appeals court decision can go even deeper than putting members back on the job.

Hill writes, "I urge you to seize the opportunity now to reach out to unorganized workers inside and outside your respective workplaces. Let them know that true justice on the job can only be achieved by winning the right to bargain as well as the right to arbitrate over access denials, and that union membership will ensure a better future for all working-class people."