HAMTC, Battelle labor negotiations tense

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 26, 2014 

Battelle and the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council are at odds after a year of negotiations over the union contract for workers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Battelle, which manages the national lab in Richland for the Department of Energy, offered a new proposal this week. HAMTC, which represents about 250 workers at PNNL, responded by writing a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, asking for DOE to intervene in the negotiations.

"We need (DOE headquarters) assistance in obtaining a fair and consistent collective bargaining agreement with Battelle and to avoid any unnecessary labor unrest," said the letter signed by Dave Molnaa, HAMTC president.

Negotiators are split on wages and benefits, particularly pension and other retirement benefits.

HAMTC recently signed agreements with five Hanford environmental cleanup contractors, all working for DOE, after two years of tumultuous negotiations. It is asking for the same wage increase from Battelle and to retain the same Hanford retirement policy already used by HAMTC workers at the national lab, with compromises it agreed to with the Hanford contractors.

"PNNL is a separate entity from Hanford and work performed here is vastly different than work at Hanford," said Greg Koller, a PNNL spokesman.

Battelle's goal is to reach an agreement that is highly competitive in the marketplace and rewards workers, while being good stewards of taxpayer money, Koller said. Proposed changes include offering HAMTC workers the same pension and 401(k) plans as other PNNL employees, which Battelle said eventually would help save the government several million dollars.

Battelle is proposing no wage increase for the first three years of a new five-year contract, including no cost-of-living adjustments, according to HAMTC. The union wants increases in line with the 2 percent annual increases negotiated for Hanford workers, but would take into account that PNNL workers received an increase in 2012 and Hanford workers did not because their contract was under negotiation.

Wages now paid to HAMTC staff at PNNL are well above those in the local market and on average are 13 percent to 23 percent above their counterparts at other national laboratories at which Battelle plays a management role, Koller said.

HAMTC workers are paid good wages and that has helped PNNL attract and retain good workers, Molnaa said. The cost of living is higher in Washington than in some of the locations Battelle used for its wage comparison study, he added.

But Koller countered that the PNNL HAMTC staff receives higher average wages in most job categories than their counterparts at the national lab in Long Island, N.Y., a high cost-of-living area. Other labs used for comparison were in Tennessee, Idaho, Nevada and Texas.

Moving workers to the Battelle pension from the Hanford pension plan would reduce their pensions and require them to work longer, in part because of age restrictions on retirement benefits, according to HAMTC. The union agreed to forgo pensions for new hires under the Hanford plan to help preserve benefits for current workers.

The Battelle proposal would offer pensions for all workers and also would offer both a pension and a 401(k) plan, which most employers don't, Koller said.

However, the 401(k) plan would require workers to contribute more to receive a lower match than the Hanford plan offers.

Battelle has offered a $7,500 signing bonus for all workers agreeing to its proposal, except those over 60 who have worked at least 15 years. Those workers instead would be allowed to continue to accrue retirement benefits at a higher level than younger employees.

HAMTC sees the current Battelle proposal as a step backward and calls the signing bonus "a bribe." But Battelle disagrees, describing it as part of the ongoing give-and-take of negotiation.

Battelle's offer is generous and fair, particularly in light of the current economy and declining federal funding, Koller said. PNNL had a budget of more than $1 billion three years ago and that dropped to $935 million in the previous fiscal year, he said. In addition, its staff has declined by more than 500 to about 4,300 workers over the past 3.5 years.

"Battelle's proposal is designed to sustain PNNL and our staff for the long-term future of the lab and the community," Koller said.

But Molnaa said Battelle has not made the case that changes are needed to sustain future business opportunities. Battelle has done well, even through recent economic challenges, he said.

It is about to start work on a new building and received nearly $11.2 million out of a possible $11.9 million last year in performance pay, after being awarded a higher overall performance rating than the nine other DOE Office of Science laboratories.

"Why would a company that does so well want to make these drastic changes when they clearly are not necessary?" Molnaa asked.

Battelle is calling on HAMTC to put its proposal to a vote by its membership.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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