Seems safe to say that Entergy Corp., the Louisiana-based company that owns the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, has had a better week than Theresa Kelleher.
Despite significant local reservations, Entergy this week received a 20-year renewal of its license to operate the South Shore power plant. Shortly thereafter, the company also decided to play hardball with employees who are resisting their latest contract offer, locking them out of the plant at midnight Tuesday, the moment their contract expired.
That’s where Kelleher comes in. She’s worked in maintenance at the place for 25 years, but as of Wednesday morning she found herself without an income, thanks to the lockout. Her job, for now, is walking a picket line outside the plant, which is where she was when we talked by phone yesterday.
She declined to say how much she makes, but suffice it to say, long-term unemployment would pose a serious hardship, even though the work stoppage hasn’t come as a complete surprise.
“The union encourages all of us when a contract is signed to start putting away a little money, in case we have to strike,” she said. “But a lot of us can’t do that. A lot of us don’t have any extra money to put away.”
As in so many labor disputes, the one that has left 240 employees out of work is mostly a battle over health care costs. Under the company’s most recent proposal, employee contributions would rise substantially; employees say they can’t afford to pay much more.
The company briefly locked out some workers in May, before the two sides returned to the bargaining table. This lockout could last much longer. A federal mediator has encouraged the sides to return to the bargaining table, but as of last night there weren’t any plans to negotiate.
That doesn’t seem to bother the officials of Entergy, a company that has a history of thorny labor relations. An affable corporate spokesman sent me a statement yesterday. To say it betrayed no sense of urgency would be putting it mildly. Basically, it said that the plant is continuing to operate safely, partly with the work of workers who have been shipped in from Entergy’s other plants. The statement didn’t mention that some of those workers are sleeping inside the plant between shifts.
That should make everyone feel more comfortable.
Among the many frustrated residents of Plymouth concerned about the plant is Therese Murray, Senate president. She told me both the company and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have ignored the concerns raised in Massachusetts about the plant itself, as well as the labor impasse.
“This is not a positive way to deal with the community,” she said. “They should have indicated they were at an impasse and brought in a federal mediator [before a lockout]. The union wasn’t walking out, so why lock them out?”
Among the concerns raised by Murray and others is that the locked-out group includes many people with intimate knowledge of the 40-year-old plant. In fact, she and local officials had implored the union not to walk off the job — regardless of the state of negotiations — because of concerns that safety might be compromised. But the lockout took the decision out of the union’s hands.
For Kelleher, the lockout has required immediate adjustment. She has applied for two jobs, including one driving a delivery truck overnight. She asked her mortgage company to accept interest-only payments until the impasse is resolved. (The mortgage company said no.) She has scheduled doctor’s appointments while she still has insurance — it expires, by contract, at the end of the month.
“We don’t want any freebies,” she said. “All we want is what’s fair. We’d rather be working than picketing — by far. Speaking for myself, not the union, I would take the contract we have now.”
At this point, that isn’t an option. So her union pickets, while Plymouth worries.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this column misstated the time period of the license renewal for the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has renewed the plant’s license for 20 years.