After three months of often rancorous talks, union representatives and company officials at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth have reached a tentative deal on a new four-year contract.
The agreement, reached late Friday night, will be brought to members of Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America for a ratification vote Sunday.
The tentative contract comes as a relief to some who worried that the contract dispute, which led to a company lockout of union workers, had adversely affected safety at the power plant. But there is no guarantee that the agreement will be approved. Two weeks ago, union members rejected a previous tentative agreement in a 137-to-89 vote because, they said, it included unreasonable cuts to pay and health care benefits.
“It’s up to our members,” said Dan Hurley, president of Local 369. “They will be the ones who will judge if this is a fair and equitable agreement.”
Negotiations between union representatives and Entergy Corp., the power plant’s Louisiana-based owner, became gridlocked one month ago over arguments about wages and health care. At that point, the company locked out union workers at the power plant, bringing in replacement staffers to operate the plant because it feared union members would strike without notice.
The 242 members of the union who work at the power station were set to gather at the union’s Plymouth headquarters Sunday to cast secret ballots.
Entergy would not disclose information about the newest tentative agreement, which was overseen by a federal mediator. Hurley said he could not give any details about the contract’s terms because union members have not seen the contract yet.
Much of the talks leading up to this agreement, he said, centered on health care, as well as the conditions on contract work. Local 369 employees have gone without medical coverage since the beginning of July, Hurley said.
Robert Smith, vice president for the Pilgrim site, said in a statement that company leaders hope Sunday’s vote brings an end to the bargaining process.
“We are pleased with the positive outcome of this challenging negotiation process and appreciate the hard work and efforts put forth by both parties to get to this point,” Smith said. “We believe this new union contract represents fair and equitable terms for both our employees and the company, which is what we have all been striving for throughout the negotiation process.”
Since contract talks stalled and the lockout began in the beginning of June, Entergy has come under criticism from government officials who say they worry that the lockout has adversely affected the safety of the plant and nearby communities.
US Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said last month that he worries “whether shortcuts or understaffing are shortchanging [local residents’] expectations for the highest level of safety.”
One day later, state Treasurer Steven Grossman urged Entergy to “end the lockout and to bargain in good faith so that the public’s confidence in the facility will be preserved.”
Entergy “needs the partnership of its workers to ensure safe operation,” Grossman said.
Hurley said the lockout has jeopardized the safety of communities surrounding the power plant because staffers from other power plants are not best-equipped to deal with the finnicky nature of the aging Plymouth facility.
Statements released by the union in the past 10 days outlined some of those safety concerns, saying that Entergy has rescheduled necessary safety drills, employed inexperienced replacement workers, and required some of its new staff to double up on safety responsibilities.
“I’ll tell you right now,” Hurley said, “it’s less safe than it would be with our members in there, because our members have been there for years and years.”
Carol Wightman, a spokeswoman for the power plant, said these accusations of declining safety are inaccurate. The plant continues to perform to safety standards, she said, and two-thirds of the usual workforce still remains on the job.
“The staff working at the plant now are fully trained and qualified people,” Wightman said. “We continue to operate the plant safely.”
Hurley said that if this tentative agreement is not approved by the union members, he hopes Entergy will end the lockout and bring back regular staff while talks continue.
Wightman said she would not speculate about how the company would respond if the current agreement is not approved Sunday.
“We reached the tentative agreement,” she said. “Now hopefully it will be ratified, and we’ll get all our employees back to work. That’s been our goal throughout this process.”