Texas Nuclear Workers Vote ‘Yes’ to Win Improved Health Care
September 10, 2014
About 350 IBEW members working at the South Texas Project nuclear facility cheered in February when their new contract took effect.
The biggest gain? Unionized employees switched from the company’s health care plan to the IBEW’s Family Medical Care Plan, which will save half of the workers about $500 a month in costs – or $6,000 each year.
For STP employees not covered by the agreement, the possibility of shifting over to the IBEW plan inspired a quick organizing campaign this summer when about 100 workers voted to be represented by Houston Local 66.
“It was a very light, very easy campaign,” said Local 66 business representative Bruce Bettilyon, who led the effort at the facility southwest of Houston.
The workers include maintenance planners and chemical technicians – with an NLRB ruling pending on reactor operators who voted for the IBEW. Employees voted in three separate NLRB-sponsored elections spanning from July to August.
Bettilyon is on something of a winning streak with campaigns at STP. In 2011, he helped organize a crew of performance technicians looking for the same rights as their IBEW-represented co-workers.
This time, like the last, attitudes between the company and workers looking to organize remained relatively even-keel, Bettilyon said.
“STP had normal captive audience meetings, saying that the company could better look out for the workers than the IBEW could,” he said. “But there were no union busters, no attorneys, nothing like that. It truly was not an adversarial campaign.”
Talks between the workers and IBEW leaders began last October, after employees facility-wide began asking each other about upcoming changes in health coverage.
“Internal organizing is different than other campaigns,” said Bettilyon, who worked with spokespeople from each group, tapped the resources of existing activists like Local 66 members Tyson Blakeburn and Mark Griffin and held evening meetings for employees looking to organize. “When you already represent some employees at a facility, talking to the nonunion people is easy. You don’t need to do house calling. You just have to keep interest going and have daily conversations with folks.”
In voting, the workers participated in what the NLRB calls an Armour-Globe self-determination election. Rather than form their own unit and negotiate a completely separate contract, the new members will soon bargain to be included in the existing agreement that already covers IBEW plant workers. After that, all represented employees will negotiate future issues as a single group.
In an ironic twist, Bettilyon said STP is now looking at broadening the IBEW’s health plan to cover more employees. The FMCP also covers retirees, which shifts costs away from the company.
“They originally said, ‘No we don’t want this insurance.’ But now they’re looking at how to get everyone on it – management, supervisors, everybody,” he said.
Bettilyon said that plant management had warned the facility’s owners – NRG Energy, San Antonio municipal utility CPS Energy and Austin Energy – that the union’s health care plan could be a potential organizing tool. “But the owners recently said, ‘We don’t care if it’s an organizing tool, as long as it saves us money.’”
The IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association established the Family Medical Care Plan in 2005. Thousands of union participants and their dependents receive medical, dental, prescription drug and vision benefits through the FMCP.
“Providing good benefits has been a bedrock principle of this union since 1891, and the growing strength of the FMCP ensures that we will continue to uphold this commitment for generations to come,” IBEW International Secretary-Treasurer Sam Chilia wrote in a 2012 editorial in The Electrical Worker. Chilia is a trustee of the plan.
Bettilyon said that even more employees at the 1,200-person facility might be looking to organize.
“I don’t expect this momentum to stop,” he said. “Other groups at the plant are looking to see what happens with these new IBEW members. I’m sure I’ll be getting some more contacts.”