Strike Beats Back Pension Cuts at NY Nuclear Plants
Older workers defended the pension benefits of younger workers in a successful 18-day strike at two nuclear reactors in Oswego, New York.
“Solidarity. That's what it was all about,” said Gary Buske, a 24-year-old who has worked two years at the Nine Mile Point plants, on the shore of Lake Ontario 30 miles outside Syracuse.
Buske is the kind of worker for whom 460 Electrical Workers (IBEW) members went out on strike July 9. Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Nuclear Group had offered a 13.6 percent increase in wages over a five-year contract, but the company also wanted to substantially reduce pension benefits. That sparked the strike.
IBEW Local 97’s strike drew notable community support, drawing picketers from other unions mobilized by the Area Labor Federation of Central New York. Lawmakers came out in support, including both the Republican state legislative delegation and the Democratic mayor of Oswego, who is a former union employee at the plants.
For the community, it was about protecting good union jobs and benefits, but also about nuclear safety. The community was concerned that it was dangerous to have a skeleton crew of managers staffing the plant on 12-hour shifts. Workers were proud of the plants’ improving safety rating and deeply concerned that their gains would be reversed during the strike.
Community support was also aimed at pressuring Constellation to give its workers and the town some guarantees as it seeks regulatory approval for its merger with Chicago-based Exelon. The merger would create the largest energy supplier in the U.S., according to the companies.
Constellation owns Baltimore Gas and Electric, and its headquarters are in Baltimore. Baltimore-area employees received assurances that employee wages, benefits, and staffing numbers would not be trimmed and that payments to the City of Baltimore would not be cut as a result of the merger.
But neither the employees at the Nine Mile plants, which account for 15 percent of Constellation's power generation, nor the City of Oswego received similar guarantees.
A delegation of Nine Mile workers brought their picket to Constellation headquarters in Maryland and discovered that many people there had no idea about the labor action in Oswego.
The union also appealed to the community's sense of justice in the face of corporate greed. Constellation and other corporations “should first ‘modernize’ CEO and executive bonuses before attempting to recoup pension benefits off the backs of hourly workers,” wrote Local 97 President Ted Skerpon in the Syracuse Post-Standard.
The workers voted 395-64 on July 26 to accept a new contract that restored some pension benefits to younger workers—who were on a lower tier because of a previous deal. The union closed about half the gap between the pension tiers, and new hires will stay in a defined-benefit plan, said Local 97 business rep Marty Currier.
The older workers “took a little hit” on their pensions, Skerpon said, but the overall package was much better than the one workers rejected three weeks before. Wage increases will be 2 percent per year over a four-year contract.
Buske said that the slightly lower wage increase will be worth it in the long run for younger workers like him because he won’t have to work an extra 10 years before he can afford to retire.
ON THE PICKET LINE
On July 24, members of the Solidarity Committee of Central New York carpooled from Syracuse to join the picket line in Oswego. A tentative agreement with management had been reached two days before, and spirits among the workers were high as they anticipated a successful conclusion to the strike.
Many passing vehicles honked, and community members stopped by to share words of support or drop off supplies. The day before, a caravan of motorcycles lined the road leading to the plant, revving their support.
Some union Nine Mile employees who work in plant security were prohibited by law from striking. But they signaled their support in other ways, by walking the picket line before or after their shifts.
The contract with another nuclear corporation, Entergy, at the nearby Fitzpatrick plant is coming up in the fall. The workers at Nine Mile said they are proud of the strong precedent they set for their fellow Local 97 members at that plant and throughout the industry.
Howie Hawkins is a member of Teamsters Local 317 in Syracuse, New York. Vincent Lloyd is an assistant professor of religion at Syracuse University. Both are members of the Solidarity Committee of Central New York.