Working In These Times
Utility Union Charges National Power Company With Illegal Employee Gag Rules
As one of the former leaders of the Oil, Atomic, Chemical Workers of America, Tony Mazzocchi was labeled “The Rachel Carson of the American Workplace.”
Why? Because Mazzocchi realized that the first people to be polluted by an industry were the bodies of workers who worked in that industry. Since they work at the source of pollution, those workers are ultimately exposed to higher level of pollutants and chemicals than anyone else. Mazzocchi educated workers about the need to crack down on these environmental problems for their own safety. He developed safety and whistleblower training programs so that workers could use their union protection to point out environmental problems.
Last week, Working In These Times Contributor Kari Lydersen wrote about how the IBEW (the electrical workers union) was supporting anti-environmental policies. While some unions that work in the power industry have gone away from Mazzocchi’s environmental ideals, other unions in the utility industry have used their role as watchdogs to speak out against environmental protection.
This past weekend, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 369 in Braintree, Mass., filed unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board against GenOn Energy, a large multi-state energy company which owns 47 plants nationwide, stating that GenOn Energy has violated federal labor law at all of its locations across the United States.
GenOn allegedly prohibits its workers from talking to anyone about their working conditions or pay, which would be in clear violation of federal labor law. This prohibition includes discussion of wages, benefits and bonuses. GenOn also had a rule prohibiting posting of information about union activity and rules not allowing workers to wear buttons in support of workers, according to the union's filing.
Most significantly, GenOn allegedly had a rule threatening potential termination of employees for initiating contact with the media or describing working conditions in blogs or social media. Another company rule prohibited employees from talking to elected officials or regulators about their working conditions.
GenOn denies the charges. "We maintain legal and appropriate workplace policies," spokesperson Paige E. Kane said Tuesday. "GenOn maintains policies that are designed to protect confidential corporate information, ensure the security of information technology systems and maintain workplace productivity."
The company, which has specialized in buying older coal and oil powered utilities, has a long track record of environmental problems.
Members of UWUA Local 369—whose companies were being brought into GenOn as a result of GenOn’s purchase of two Boston-area Power Plants— said they discovered the rules in a recently issued company handbook.
“We’ve seen companies put forward some outrageous rules in our experience,” said UWUA Local 369 President David Leonardi. “But these GenOn rules standout as excessive and resemble rules this Local forced another Massachusetts employer to fix.” The union hopes the unfair labor practice filing will force the company to jettison the rules.
“They ride roughshod over workers where they don’t have the big resources of a union. We have the luxury of having a lawyer on staff. We have the ability to fight these things because of the organization we have,” said Leonardi.
So while some unions look the other way when encountered with environmental problems, union workers clearly have the protection that nonunion workers lack to identify problems that are not just dangerous to local communities, but dangerous to their health.
This article has been updated with the company's response to the union's charges.