Single collective agreement signed for two nuclear power plants

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In June 2003, management and trade unions signed a preliminary agreement on a unified collective agreement for two of Spain's nuclear power plants, those at Almaraz and Trillo. This may represent the first step towards a sectoral agreement for the sector, where bargaining currently occurs at plant level.

On 12 June 2003, a single preliminary collective agreement was signed for two of Spain's seven nuclear power plants, those at Almaraz in Extremadura and Trillo in Castilla-la Mancha - the first time that bargaining in this sector has been conducted at a level above the individual plant.

Context

After liberalisation of the Spanish electricity sector in 1997, the industry's companies changed little until the economic crisis in Latin America (where many operate) forced them to seek ways of regaining profitability. They are now segmenting the market into distribution, generation and maintenance, and seeking to reduce labour costs. The whole electricity sector is undergoing a reduction in its workforce. The nuclear power plants are the 'jewel in the crown' of the industry, but their useful life is limited in time, and they cannot make major workforce reductions due to the strict regulations to which they are subject.

Spain's seven nuclear power plants have a direct workforce of 6,000 and an indirect workforce of another 3,000. The Almaraz and Trillo plants, located in Cáceres and Guadalajara respectively and employing 800 workers in total, have formally merged. Both plants were formerly independent 'associations of economic interests' (Asociación de Intereses Económicos, AIEs), a special form of company owned by a number of firms. The energy companies Iberdrola, Endesa, Hidrocantábrico and Union Fenosa had shareholdings in the Almaraz plant, and the first three of these firms had holdings in Trillo. All four companies have a shareholding in the new merged AIE which runs Trillo and Almaraz, though Union Fenosa has a smaller share than the others. All nuclear power plants provide the energy that they produce to their owner companies, which sell it on to consumers. The price is fixed at national level for all the plants, and the consumer pays for both the cost of production and any suspensions of production that may occur. The power plants do not have their own independent cash and bank balances, though the AIEs have their own management and human resources departments.

At the start of bargaining over new collective agreements in 2003, the companies which own the Trillo and Almaraz AIE proposed that the formerly separate agreements for the two plants should be merged into a single deal. This idea was motivated by the employment relations situation in the sector - including problems of work organisation, the emergence of a number of disputes, the existence of groups of highly specialised workers etc - and a wish to extend the industrial peace that had been achieved at the Trillo plant.

Work in nuclear plants

The safety regulations imposed by the Nuclear Security Council (Consejo de Seguridad Nuclear, CSN) require a more or less fixed workforce at nuclear power plants. The work process in the plants includes a host of operating and environmental precautions and occupational risk prevention measures. After a recent incident involving the overheating of cooling water that forced the Garoña plant to shut down due to the risk of a radioactive steam leak, the companies in the nuclear power sector have become more sensitive to risk.

The plants have an annual shutdown lasting about a month, during which the water in the cooling tanks and the basic radioactive material are changed. There is no production in this period but it involves the greatest workload because of the extent of the work. The cost is very high for the plants, which during the shutdown must use additional workers from the 'temporary company units' (Unidades Temporales de Empresa, UTEs), special employment organisations run by companies in the electricity sector. The rest of the year involves the supervision and regular maintenance of the plant, with a far lower workload. The AIEs involved cannot reduce costs greatly by reducing the workforce, so they try to do so by shortening the shutdown period.

The key employees in nuclear plants are the controllers, a group of highly qualified technical staff. They require five to seven years of training by the company and supervise the whole operation of the plant from the control room. As they are given full responsibility and decision-making power over the functioning of the plant, they also have exceptional employment conditions, enjoying a very high level of job security. The rest of the workforce is made up of electricians, technical staff, welders, adjusters, maintenance staff and so on. The UTEs (see above) employ 3,000 external and auxiliary workers who are used temporarily during the shutdowns of the seven power plants.

Industrial relations

Employers' interests in the nuclear power plants are defined quite easily by the various owner companies, because of the lack of competition on the market. The aim of the employers has been to rationalise the sector and to reach a sectoral collective agreement through dialogue.

The sectors' workers are represented by both the two majority trade union confederations, the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) and the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores), plus two unions for specific occupational groups, the Controllers’ Trade Union (Sindicato de Controladores, APLO) and the Trade Union Group of Mid-level Technical Staff (Agrupación Sindical de Técnicos Medios, SITAC). CC.OO and UGT have generally taken similar positions on industrial relations in the sector, with the exception of a few minor differences of opinion over occupational reclassification.

In the talks over a single agreement for Almaraz and Trillo, APLO (a split from UGT) gave up its 'fringe agreement'- a special agreement that was separate from the general agreement - and agreed to the unification of the agreements. CC.OO accepted some of APLO's demands with regard to training, shifts and pay, though UGT did not always agree. SITAC disagreed with the proposed treatment of variable pay (which has been clarified, objectified and unified at a set level), and decided to opt out of the bargaining on the preliminary agreement, even though it guarantees a 9% pay rise for the group of workers it represents.

The main concerns of workers in the sector are shift patterns and stand-by periods, during which they must be available at all times and no more than 30 minutes away from their workplace - this applies to one week out of nine at Trillo, one week out of seven at Almaraz. The companies want to make the stand-by periods more frequent.

Preliminary agreement

The separate agreements for Almaraz and Trillo laid down similar employment conditions, with the main differences lying in the structure of occupational classifications. The main points of the preliminary single agreement reached in June 2003 are as follows, according to CC.OO's Mining and Metal Federation (Federación minerometalúrgica):

  • it provides for seven occupational groups with a total of 19 levels, thus simplifying and unifying the complex former structures. At Almaraz there was automatic promotion every six years, while at Trillo there were few expectations of promotion. The new unified system allows promotion for all workers. When workers rise one level they obtain a 4.6% pay rise. Pay increments have thus been clarified in comparison with the former complex range of pay supplements. Bonuses have been unified and reorganised;
  • employment stability has been achieved for the workers employed by UTEs;
  • a bargaining commission has been set up to draw up the final agreement (without the participation of SITAC) and monitor it. A joint 'social benefit and cover commission' and an 'economic structure commission' have also been set up;
  • a redundancy procedure is planned in order to 'rejuvenate' the workforce through the pre-retirement of 160 workers at the two plants at the age of 58 and the recruitment of 80 new workers on open-ended contracts. The procedure will have the same duration as the agreement - five years. The workers entering pre-retirement will receive 80% of their former gross pay, with a maximum of 100% of net pay (thus preventing pre-retired workers from earning more than active workers); and
  • employees will receive individual pay rises of between 8% and 20%. It is estimated that the pay rises will cost EUR 6 million per year above the increase in the Consumer Prices Index.

Commentary

The unified Almaraz and Trillo deal is an important preliminary agreement, in which the trade unions have achieved improvements in employment conditions for the workers in a very special sector. It may lead in the medium term to a sectoral agreement for the whole nuclear power agreement. (Daniel Albarracín, Fundació CIREM)

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