Workers At The U.S.’s Largest Nuclear-Fuel Factory Plan To Unionize
Workers at the United States’ largest factory for assembling the fuel rods used in nuclear reactors are attempting to unionize.
Nearly 700 employees at the Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility, located 25 minutes southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, are set to vote on whether to form a union represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The election is scheduled for Feb. 29, March 1 and March 2.
The IBEW filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) late last month requesting a union election. More than half of 673 eligible employees have already signed cards pledging to support the organizing drive, HuffPost has learned. The plant has a total workforce of nearly 900.
The union push marks the second attempt in the past few years to rally the plant’s workers to collectively bargain a contract. That the facility isn’t already unionized is rather unusual for the nuclear power industry.
Just 6% of employees in the U.S. private sector are represented by unions. But more than a third of workers in the nuclear energy industry are organized, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the IBEW, resulting in wages that typically exceed those in renewable energy or fossil fuels. That number has stayed mostly flat — or possibly declined — as nuclear power plants shut down in recent years and laid off workers. But South Carolina has long had the lowest rate of unionization in the nation — a streak U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data confirmed again last month — thanks to laws that favor employers over workers.
The factory is one of three owned by the Pennsylvania-based nuclear giant Westinghouse Electric Company, but the only one without a unionized workforce. The other two fuel-fabrication facilities are in England and Sweden.
But organized labor bookends the U.S. supply chain. The Blairsville, Pennsylvania, factory where Westinghouse churns out the parts the workers in South Carolina are using to assemble the fuel rods is a union plant. That fuel often ends up in reactors operated by union workers at the federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority’s fleet of nuclear power plants.
“As a union member, I take pride knowing that the fuel rods we load into our core at Watts Bar have been touched by union members at the beginning of the process,” Trip Geiger, an IBEW-represented assistant reactor operator at the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee, said in a promotional video the union made to boost the organizing drive in South Carolina. “I’d like to be able to say they’re touched at the middle of the process, from production to assembly at your plant to installing those same fuel rods in our core and producing power.”
The facility presses powdered uranium into pellets that are then assembled into rectangular fuel rods that go into reactors. Fuel from the plant generates roughly 10% of U.S. electricity.
Following decades of static demand as nuclear energy fell into decline, the U.S. is inching toward building more reactors at home and overseas as the world races to wean off fossil fuels and find alternatives to solar and wind power that use less land and minerals — and produce much steadier and higher volumes of electricity.
The U.S. is even challenging Moscow’s near-monopoly on exports of nuclear technology and uranium, with Westinghouse now manufacturing fuel rods that work in the Russian-designed reactors used widely in Eastern Europe.
“Our demand keeps rising, and a lot of that has pushed our plant to where we’re at now,” said an employee who has spent more than a decade working at the plant.
“What I try to tell people at the plant is now would be the time to organize because we certainly have the upper hand,” said the worker, who spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal from management. “This isn’t an industry where you can just hire anybody to replace people, it takes training.”
A spokesman for Westinghouse did not respond to a request for comment. But the union accused the company of threatening employees with cuts to benefits in a complaint filed last week with the NLRB.
The Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility first attempted to unionize decades ago. Employees there most recently made an organizing push in 2018, a year after Westinghouse — then owned by the Japanese industrial giant Toshiba — filed for bankruptcy amid mounting billion-dollar cost overruns on a project to build the first of a new kind of reactor at a power plant in Georgia.
At the time, older workers at the facility worried the organizing drive would cost them their retirement plans. The IBEW only takes on campaigns if the 10% of the workforce inside the facility volunteer to help organize the rest of the company, a threshold the union said the Westinghouse plant failed to reach until last spring.
But workers soon saw their pensions weren’t safe anyway. Westinghouse eliminated employee pensions as part of its financial restructuring, and workers saw that was much easier to do in South Carolina than at the plant in Blairsville.
“Our demand keeps rising… What I try to tell people at the plant is now would be the time to organize because we certainly have the upper hand.”
– Worker at the Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility
After the failed unionization effort six years ago, Westinghouse began implementing draconian shift schedules and forcing employees to work seven days in a row to benefit from overtime on weekends, according to the IBEW and the worker HuffPost interviewed. Workers typically earn high salaries, they said. However, the health insurance changed to one that provided less coverage. When teams at the plant asked the company to hire more workers to help with the growing demand, the employee said management rebuffed the request, saying there wasn’t enough money.
“It’s funny, the amount of money that I see them waste on projects that don’t work out or were totally wrong from the state, it might be $100,000 or more and nobody bats an eye at that,” the worker said. “But if you ask for more time off or say, ‘Hey, we can use a few more people to help lighten the load,’ it’s, ‘We can’t do that, we don’t have the money to do that.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic was another factor, said Melissa Reyes, the IBEW’s lead organizer in the Carolinas.
“What really dawned on them is that, even through COVID and whatever else, those people had to show up for work every single day,” Reyes said.
“HR didn’t have to show up every day. The front office didn’t have to show up every day. But they sure did,” she said of the industrial workers at the plant. “So it really empowered them and made them realize, ‘This place doesn’t run without us. They can’t survive without us.’”
Despite what the IBEW said was widespread support at the facility, unionizing in the Palmetto State won’t be easy.
In a speech, two days after the union filed paperwork with the NLRB, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster said, “One thing we do not need is more labor unions” in the state, according to the South Carolina Daily Gazette, which first reported on the petition last week.
McMaster was referring to an ongoing legal fight with the International Longshoremen’s Association over securing union contracts for crane operators at the Port of Charleston. Asked by the nonprofit news outlet about the Westinghouse campaign, a spokesperson for the GOP governor said all unions represent “a clear danger to our prosperity.” (Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is running for the Republican presidential nomination in part on her union-busting record.)
But Westinghouse paid its former top executive Daniel Roderick $19 million the year before he was pushed out of his seat as chairman of the board amid the company’s previous financial collapse in 2017. Westinghouse emerged from Chapter 11 protections in 2018 when Toshiba sold the company to the private equity giant Brookfield.
In 2022, a joint venture between the Canadian uranium-mining behemoth Cameco and Brookfield Renewable Partners, a subsidiary of the private equity firm that owns zero-carbon energy assets, bought Westinghouse in what was widely seen as a bullish bet on the future of nuclear power. The deal closed in November.
Since then, anytime the managers provide an update on the company’s finances at all-hands meetings, the fuel-fabrication division “is always in the green” while the other services Westinghouse provides are “usually in the yellow or red,” the longtime South Carolina facility worker said.
“Our plant especially is the money maker for Westinghouse. We’ve been told that for years, that our plant almost single-handedly keeps Westinghouse afloat,” the worker said. “The fact is, they need us right now.”
Dave Jamieson contributed reporting.