Nobody’s getting what they wanted.
The president of the union that represents security workers at Savannah River Site says the company they work for, Centerra-SRS, is trying to strip rights from workers as it prepares to seek a new contract with the Department of Energy in 2019.
The union’s chief steward, who helped negotiate the contract, is not striking and says members were misled about the contract and the strike was called too hastily. Striking workers are figuring that out and returning to work every day, he says.
The company says it negotiated in good faith and the result was “the most lucrative Protective Force Collective Bargaining Agreement ever proposed at a DOE Site anywhere in the country.” It wants to let striking workers know they are not locked out and can come back to work anytime.
As the strike marks its 15th day today, the two sides seem no closer to resolution than when it began.
The company wants workers to change their minds on the “last, best and final offer.” The union wants the company to bend on health insurance co-pays and a provision it says would let the company change the agreement “mid-stream.”
Meanwhile, striking workers have no benefits, unless they buy their own health insurance through the federal COBRA program. No new negotiations have been started, and the union says the strike will continue until it gets “back to the table” with Centerra.
The chief steward, George Parks, is paying a high price for breaking ranks. He says he’s received threats and has become an outcast among his brotherhood. Mathias Miller, president of United Professional Pro-Force of Savannah River, Local 125, says Parks will be kicked out when it’s all over because he’s an executive board member and should support the union’s position.
“It hurts a little that guys whose children I’ve held, who I’ve represented in arbitration, are yelling at me when I drive by,” said Parks, who has worked at SRS more than 30 years and was elected to the executive board three times. Coming in to work a couple of days before the strike, a fellow worker said to him: “You’re going the wrong way, aren’t you?”
After someone put a threatening letter in Parks’ mailbox at home, he filed a report with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, which now routinely patrols past his house.
“You should be ashamed of yourself standing in front of the Union body and taking up for the company,” the letter, laced with racial epithets, read. “We know where you live and hang out and we will handle business with (you) real soon!”
“The letter was not signed and was not in an envelope, which suggests that someone hand-delivered the letter to the mailbox,” a deputy wrote in his report.
Parks said he’s doing what’s best for his family.
“I believe in the right to strike, and to be pro-union, but I have to be able to live with myself and do what’s right,” he said.
In contract negotiations, issues are addressed one at a time and when there’s agreement between union and company, they’re codified in a temporary agreement signed by both parties, Parks said. A series of temporary agreements eventually becomes the contract, and there were no hangups over policies, just money, he said.
“A lot of people didn’t read the contract, and they were told ‘You gotta be a fool to vote for this contract. It’s all take-aways,’” Parks said.
He believes he did a good job in negotiating, and defended the contract, knowing he would suffer for it, he said.
“As we speak right now, people are coming back to work,” Parks said last week. “They’re trickling in. I don’t believe they were educated about what happens during a strike.”
The company says more than 40 union members either did not strike or have returned. Miller, the union president, said he only knows of 32.
Here’s a brief look at two key sticking points that led to the strike:
Healthcare: The new contract would have instituted co-pays —$15 to visit a primary physician, $30 for a specialist — something workers didn’t have to pay before, Miller said. Out-of-pocket maximums would have been not more than $1,000 for an individual, not more than $2,000 for a family. Some visits or procedures might require a “co-insurance” payment of about 10 percent up front, and would count toward the out-of-pocket maximum. Actual premiums can’t be calculated until actuaries tally the claims from the past 24 months and forecast the amount of money needed to pay future claims, according to Centerra. The company pays 83 percent of the premium for an individual and 78 percent for a family. The union says the company would not give it an estimate of how much premiums might rise, but Centerra issued a news release Thursday that said it would likely be $3 a week for an individual, $9 for a family. Parks said he thinks that’s not too much for workers earning $80,000 to $100,000 a year.
Amending the collective bargaining agreement: The union’s president says the contract “basically says if there’s a change in future that would normally be negotiated — if company and union can’t agree, there would a shortened negotiation and if that wasn’t successful the company could implement the change,” essentially voiding the contract. Centerra says any such changes would be dictated only by circumstances or changes in the company’s mission. The union would be notified and could negotiate. Either party could seek mediation, and if it failed, expedited non-binding arbitration. If that didn’t work, “the Company then could implement changes in accordance with the Company’s contractual obligations to the Government.”