By Tom Corrigan
The feud continues between the private company handling the dismantling of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant – a.k.a. the A-Plant – in Piketon, Flour-BWXT (which bills itself as “FBP”) and the United Steelworkers, Local 1-659, which represents many of the workers toiling to tear down the massive, defunct plant.
But short of intervention by the federal Department of Energy, which owns the site and contracts with FBP, there really doesn’t seem to be much the union can do to stop what they consider a forced layoff at the plant the week of July 1, admitted union President John Knauff.
On Tuesday, Knauff told the Daily Times he is still annoyed FBP officials cannot tell him exactly how many workers will be out of a paycheck for at least a week despite repeated union requests for that information.
“The Union position remains unchanged. It matters not what the Company titles their actions in their attempt to deny violations of the Agreement, what matters is what happens to the employees. The net effect is a massive lay-off of employees July 1, 2018. We state ‘massive’ since the Company has refused to identify which and how many employees will be laid-off,” Knauff wrote in a June 13 letter to FBP administrators
Knauff estimated the number of affected employees to be between 700 and 800. FBP administrators say they will keep only persons, Knauff said, were described as “critical staff” on hand during the plant shutdown.
“Please note that we have not yet finalized the requested listing of total number of employees… that are to report to work for the week beginning July 2, 2018. We will be able to finalize the listing next week and will provide you with the listing by close of business Thursday 21, 2018,” reads part of FBP’s written response to Knauff’s request for information.
Knauff supplied a copy of that response written by Ron Lee, director of labor relations for FBP.
In comments to the Daily Times, Knauff said the layoffs were precipitated by the company going over budget on its activities at the site. That is not at all the case according to Jack Williams, manager of public outreach for FBP.
When this issue first became public late last month, Williams said employees work 10 hours a day, four days a week.
“The July 4th four-day work week, with two scheduled holidays (leaving only two scheduled workdays), creates an inefficient working scenario,” Williams said in a prepared statement. “In the past, FBP implemented a voluntary shutdown for the July 4th week. Last year the decision was made, and policies updated, to adopt a holiday week project shutdown. All non-essential employees, including members of the bargaining units, are included in this decision.”
For his part, Knauff is not convinced FBP understands what personnel are “essential.” He said he is worried certain persons, such as those needed to calibrate complex equipment, calibrations he argued must be completed on a regular basis, will not be allowed to do their jobs.
“This is a process this company does not know how to do,” Knauff said.
Knauff was asked why his union members can’t simply take the week of the Fourth of July holiday off, enjoy themselves and move on. Knauff said to think of a company forced to do without its cash flow for a week. He added that such a situation certainly would create problems for any firm.
“It’s been my experience,” he said, “that except maybe for some millionaires, people expect to live off the money they make each week. Each week’s pay is their cash flow for the week. It’s a big deal to us. It does complicate your life considerably.”
Beginning in May, Knauff has further complained about the company allegedly pressuring workers to take what he described as valuable holiday pay if they were worried about losing income.
In the midst of the dispute, FBP issued a press release touting what the company administration said is the current safety record at the plant site.
“We are proud of our safety record and our worker involvement in completing our hazardous mission work for the U.S. DOE at the PORTS site,” said Bob French, FBP Environmental Safety and Health Manager. “FBP also dedicates about one out of four workers to our Environment, Safety and Health organization. This provides for a proactive and continuous hazard identification and protection process in all our work.
“Most importantly, our entire leadership team and workforce is dedicated to the safety of our work environment. The highest value is placed on ensuring our workers are going home in the same safe and healthy condition they came to work with each day.”
“I’m not at all satisfied that our people are totally safe out here,” Knauff told the Daily Times. “There is no systemic approach to the demolition. They have created a highly contaminated area.”
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101