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Massive Worker Strike at Pantex Should Ring Alarms in DC

Long simmering labor disputes at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, have turned into a large-scale strike, slowing the work of the nuclear weapons complex, and potentially jeopardizing the safety of America’s most dangerous weapons.

Pantex assembles, disassembles, and tests nuclear weapon components for the U.S. military. On August 29, more than 1,100 workers went on strike over cuts to benefits by lab management.

The striking workers make up over 50 percent of non-guard, non-management employees. They include the essential support staff that maintain security alarms, provide fire and emergency medical services (EMS), and who move nuclear weapons and material around Pantex.

Due to the secret and dangerous nature of the work done at the plant, it is particularly difficult to quickly replace workers who go on strike. The contractor operating Pantex, Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS), has attempted to keep the plant running normally by pressing managers into service, but might be taking unacceptable risks with life and nuclear weapons by doing so.

According to sources inside Pantex, there is not enough managerial staff to keep up with even a reduced workload. Repair work on the Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System has slowed to a crawl, as has maintenance and upkeep throughout the plant.

In some cases work has come to a halt so managers can learn to do their employees’ jobs. For example, moving nuclear weapons material requires heavy machinery and a detailed set of protocols. CNS is conducting mock loading and shipping exercises to try and win approval from NNSA to move weapons material, compressing a certification process that normally takes months into just a few weeks. According to sources, last week a Pantex manager almost crashed a forklift into a shelter where disassembled weapons are stored.

Were there an emergency, the Pantex workforce would likely not be able to respond. The plant fire department is currently operating at around 50 percent below minimum staffing, and is using managers who aren’t accustomed to being on response teams. Last Saturday, a department captain backed an engine into a culvert during an alarm run, bending the aluminum rims and blowing out a tire.

Although guards themselves are not on strike, they are handicapped by the absence of critical support staff. Striking workers are responsible for maintaining he alarm systems and security vehicles that would be needed in the event of an emergency. Moreover, any incident would likely call on the already compromised EMS staff.

The striking workers, who are represented under the umbrella of the Metal Trades Council, say they are responding to health care and benefits cuts. In a statement, Council President Clarence Rashada said, “Wages are not the issue. Benefits, sick leave, medical coverage, prescription drugs, those are the issues.” Work at Pantex necessarily involves exposure to dangerous chemicals and substances, but CNS is seeking to eliminate defined benefit pensions for new hires and to shift greater health care costs onto retirees.

The strike—the first in 45 years—comes after seven months of negotiations and in the midst of personnel shortages at Pantex. Attrition is common at the start of contract changes, but Pantex staff has shrunk steadily since CNS assumed full control of the plant in July 2014. CNS is a combination of a who’s who of major defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Bechtel, and Booz Allen Hamilton, but according to sources at Pantex, it “can’t hire people fast enough to replace the ones that have left.”

Union leadership also blames the Department of Energy (DOE) for the situation, arguing that a rule capping worker benefits has put CNS and Pantex employees in an untenable position. By rule, CNS can’t offer employee benefits that exceed the industry average by five percent. However, the industry baseline is based partly on manufacturers of cell phones and car parts. It is arguably inappropriate to compare labor on consumer goods and nuclear weapons in this way, and as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) notes, in the nuclear weapons complex “salary and benefits—are ultimately the most important factors in employee retention.”

Effectively shutting down Pantex over a labor rule that only affects 10 percent of DOE contractors speaks volumes about leadership and priorities at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). In the run-up to the contract decision, CNS claimed it could save taxpayers over $3 billion by cutting redundancies and consolidating management, but NNSA never did the work to validate that claim. Earlier this year, the GAO reported that the NNSA evaluation of the CNS bid “did not clearly or completely describe expected benefits and costs,” and lacked “key analyses and assumptions for cost savings estimates.” It was also missing a description of the “unquantified benefits” CNS management might or might not offer.

This fits a pattern. A series of recent reports have found that NNSA is skimping on upkeep for old buildings, using obsolete fire safety equipment at weapons sites, and is relying on broken security sensors to protect uranium stockpiles. In each of these cases, deferred or slapdash maintenance ultimately drove up, or will eventually drive up, costs. NNSA and DOE claim they lack adequate funding for maintaining infrastructure, but continue to spend enormous sums on new facilities that the GAO has said may not even be necessary to support arsenal requirements.

The strike at Pantex also draws attention to the role of contractors within the nuclear weapons complex. Waste, fraud, and abuse by contractors such as by Bechtel at the Hanford Site, or by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation, at Sandia National Lab, show that contracting out major nuclear weapons projects is at best risky to taxpayers.

This is the basic paradox of the nuclear weapons complex. NNSA and DOE pursue gratuitously large projects while starving maintenance and operations budgets, driving up costs for both new and old infrastructure. Contractors are used purportedly to save money, but are rarely punished by DOE, even for serious waste, fraud, abuse, or other mismanagement. Since DOE doesn’t insist on accountability, contractors get to continue billing taxpayers even when they aren’t delivering results.

If there’s one place where these risks cannot be tolerated, it’s the physical security of nuclear weapons. As numerous experts have stated, and as the Pantex strike shows, security functions at nuclear weapons facilities are inherently governmental functions. They are too important to be left to a contractor’s business decision, and must be federalized.

In the meantime, the situation at Pantex requires immediate attention. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry (R-TX) both represents Amarillo in his congressional district and controls the NNSA budget as the committee chairman. More than any other Member of Congress, Chairman Thornberry has a responsibility to ensure basic safety and security at Pantex.

Timely action at Pantex may prevent security problems from spreading through the nuclear weapons complex. CNS also manages Y-12, where it is about to begin contract negotiations with members of the Atomic Trades and Labor Council, the Metal Trades Council’s brother organization. A one-year extension on the current contract expires on September 28.

Congress must act before NNSA’s security problems reach critical mass.