SEABROOK — Unionized employees at the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant got most of what they asked for in a contract proposal that will go to a vote on Thursday, with tentative approval by the union's executive committee.
Union President Ted Jenis credited federal mediator Elaine Temple for breaking an impasse that could have led to a lockout.
"Without her, I don't think this would have happened," he said.
A commissioner with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Portland, Maine, Temple met with both sides last Wednesday and again on Sunday. Negotiations have been underway since September on a new contract to replace the current five-year deal that was set to expire at midnight on Monday.
Management had warned that failure to reach an agreement would result in a lockout of the 226 workers represented by Local 555 of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, whose members include control room operators and radiation control experts.
That would have left operation of the nuclear power plant in the hands of management and nonunion personnel, a situation that was being closely monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The main sticking points were wages, premium pay for weekend work and a separate classification for the firefighter/EMT position.
According to Jenis, the union was seeking annual wage hikes of 2.5 percent in a three-year contract, while the company was offering 2 percent. The tentative deal agreed to on Sunday calls for increases of 2.25 percent each year.
Regarding the fire brigade leader position, Jenis said, "That was the biggest issue that was resolved. The company agreed to take that off the table. We're keeping the fire brigade/EMT classification."
The most difficult issue was a proposal by management to end premium pay for weekend work, and instead create rotating shifts that include weekend coverage at regular pay.
"We agreed to leave things the way they stand right now in our existing contract, until Dec. 31 of 2014," Jenis said. "In that time, our executive board will meet with the company to see if we can come to a resolution as far as what we can do for shifts."
The union president said that both sides would be closely watching as the owner of Seabrook Station, NextEra Energy of Juno Beach, Fla., negotiates new contracts with unionized employees at its other nuclear power plants, particularly two in Florida, at Jensen Beach and Turkey Point.
The turning point
NextEra, an offshoot of Florida Power & Light, owns and operates eight nuclear units at five plant sites in Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa and Wisconsin. The Seabrook power plant employs 670, including union and nonunion personnel.
Last week, when an impasse appeared imminent, Seabrook Station spokesman Al Griffith said the company asked for a federal mediator. That was a turning point, according to Jenis.
"I can't say enough about the mediator," he said. "She was fantastic. She got things moving and kept things rolling, continually coming up with different ideas."
NextEra took out a full-page ad in the Union Leader on Monday extolling the benefits of the contract offer that was initially rejected, despite increases in tuition assistance along with enhancements to health care, short-term disability benefits and life insurance coverage. The company cited the shutdown of four nuclear power plants in 2013 as an aging fleet comes up against tough competition from gas-fired power plants offering lower rates on the wholesale market.
"Nuclear power continues to be a valuable contributor to the country's need for safe, clean energy," said Griffith, "but there's no doubt the economic conditions have changed."
NextEra and the union agreed to a one-week extension of the current contract, pending Thursday's vote of the full membership. The NRC is closing monitoring the outcome of the voting, said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.
"We reviewed the company's strike contingency plan and found it to be acceptable," he said. "We also developed our own contingency plan, which covers how we would provide oversight if a walkout were to occur at the facility. This enhanced oversight would include 24-hour-a-day coverage for at least the first 48 hours of a walkout and enhanced coverage for the duration of a strike. For now, pending the outcome of the contract vote, there is no need for the contingency plans to be put into action."