By Ron AultMetal Trades Department, AFL-CIO
May 7, 2010
The Bush Administration left us a lot of excess baggage in anti-worker federal policies. One especially onerous policy came out of the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy. It was proposed in order to eliminate defined benefit pension plans and post retirement health care programs for all the contract workers who perform the nation’s nuclear weapons work. Organized labor blocked the policy by having Congress pass a bill that said in essence that DOE could not spend any funds to implement that policy. Shortly afterward, then-DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman met with me and several other national labor leaders, including then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, to tell us that DOE was withdrawing the DOE directive over defined benefit pensions.
We relaxed and moved on to other battles. Big mistake. DOE was secretly implementing the directive by including it within the procurement bid process, called “solicitation for bids,” that would require any successful contractor to implement the DOE/NNSA policy that Secretary Bodman told us they were withdrawing.
We worked night and day to elect a worker friendly administration in 2008 to stop attacks on workers and the elimination of a middle class in America. We welcomed President Obama and applauded his appointment of Secretary Chu as Energy Secretary.
On January 21, 2009, I sent Secretary Chu a letter asking for an opportunity to sit down with him over the issue of DOE policies that were harmful to workers we represent. In June, almost exactly ix months later, I received a cryptic email thanking me for my communication to Secretary Chu, but due to his busy schedule he could not accept my invitation for a meeting. In the meantime we were locked in battles at DOE Sandia National Laboratory with Lockheed (DOE’s prime contractor that runs the lab for them) over the elimination of defined benefit pension for workers that have had this provision in their union contract at Sandia for more than fifty years. The defined benefit pension plan at Sandia is virtually free. It currently operates at no cost to the government and it is currently overfund by 167% (as of May 17, 2010) AND WILL NOT REQUIRE ANY ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTION IN THE FORSEEABLE FUTURE! Apparently, for DOE, facts should not get in the way of a policy. In this case, the overfunded status was irrelevant for DOE.
The agency insisted that the contractors take away the defined benefit pensions in collective bargaining negotiations even if it meant a strike and required that the employer start a new defined contribution pension program (a 401 (K) program) that actually increased the costs to the government and added to the federal budget deficit.
The Metal Trades took a strike vote at Sandia, but the bargaining unit turned it down in face of the worst recession in modern history.
Same story at DOE Hanford in Richland, Washington; at the Oak Ridge Tennessee facility; and at all other DOE/NNSA nuclear weapons programs, in addition to our Idaho Falls Naval Nuclear Reactor facility that is a joint Navy/DOE facility. For more than two years now Secretary Chu has refused to meet with me over these DOE anti-worker policies even though he has met with many of our Metal Trades Council and Atomic Trades Council local presidents when he makes visits to the many thousands of Metal Trades Department-represented workers at all these DOE locations.
On Good Friday this past month before the Easter Holiday, NNSA/DOE posted on their website a new requirement for contractor bids on a combined operations and maintenance contract our Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant in Amarillo, Texas; our Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge Tennessee; and, within two years, at the DOE Savannah River Weapons Complex in South Carolina. The plan is to link these operations together under a single contract, with a new provision that the successful contractor will have the “flexibility” (for the first time in history) not to hire the present employees, who have decades of seniority and valuable experience after (in many cases) decades of working at these DOE facilities for every previous DOE contractor. Even worse, the successful contractor is free to set wages and benefits without regard to the rates of pay and benefits contained in our collective bargaining agreements.
How many thousands of highly skilled, high security, nuclear qualified employees could this affect? What classifications will be affected? Will this be a wholesale replacement of the entire present workforces in all three locations with brand new kids fresh out of high school? Hell, don’t ask me. I am only the National President of the largest labor organization representing workers within NNSA- they haven’t seen fit to even brief me or any of our unions. We read about this just like John Q. Public did.
I recently wrote DOE Secretary Chu a letter similar to the January 21, 2009 letter I previously had sent to him, again asking for a meeting to discuss these disturbingly anti-worker developments by his Department of government. We haven’t heard a word from DOE.