Last year, armed guards at the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant blew the whistle on security problems that hindered their ability to protect the facility, such as chronically broken doors to vital areas and forced cheating on state exams. The guards’ concerns led watchdog groups to file a formal complaint with federal and state authorities. While the investigations are still ongoing, they have already resulted in improvements at the plant.

Now the Harris guards–employees of the U.S. subsidiary of Sweden-based Securitas, the world’s largest private security firm–have taken another step toward securing better working conditions at Progress Energy’s plant near Raleigh: They have formed a union.

On June 22, 97 guards cast ballots in an election to decide on representation by the Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America, a Michigan-based organization that also represents airport screeners, campus security officers and private guards at military bases. Forty-seven Harris guards voted in favor of the union and 39 against, while 11 votes were challenged by the SPFPA. The union contested those ballots because they were cast by guards who were hired by Securitas right around the June 1 voting eligibility cutoff date, and who had not yet begun working regular shifts.

“For all I knew, they were actually supervisors,” SPFPA Organizing Director Steve Maritas said.

The contested ballots were opened July 24 under National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) supervision. One of the ballots was discarded outright because the person who cast it wasn’t on the list of eligible voters. Of the remaining 10 ballots, two were in favor of the union, eight against. The union won, 49 to 47, in an election expected to be certified Aug. 3.

“Now we get to sit down and negotiate a contract,” said Maritas. “That will be a whole different battle.”

The election was the culmination of a long organizing effort by the guards. In 2004, they tried but failed to win representation with the United Government Security Officers of America, a small Colorado-based union. UGSOA has since come under fire by the National Alliance of Police, Security and Corrections Organizations, which censured UGSOA for its “self-serving, non-democratic union organizational behavior.”

The Harris guards then turned to the SPFPA, a larger union that in the past two years has racked up an 82 percent win rate, one of the nation’s highest. The vote was originally supposed to take place Jan. 26 but was delayed after SPFPA filed objections with the NLRB. The union charged that Securitas had violated the law by granting $1 per hour raises right before the vote (to a starting hourly wage of $14.50) and threatening guards with losing that raise and other perks if the union won.

Pro-union Harris guards said they had many reasons for organizing. Among the most pressing issues they cited were overwork and fatigue.

“We’re severely understaffed,” reported one guard, whose name is being withheld at his request. Since the whistle-blowers came forward last year, Securitas has imposed a policy forbidding guards from talking to the media or other outsiders about problems at the plant. “Mandatory overtime has increased so much in the past months that a lot of guards are quitting.”

Securitas recently switched the guards from working four consecutive 12-hour days followed by four days off to three 12-hour days with three days off. One of the guards’ “days off” typically involves coming to the plant for paid practice drills. When a day of mandatory overtime is added to their schedule, they end up with only one full day of rest from a difficult, high-stress job.

That’s led many guards to quit. As the Independent reported in May, high turnover among the force recently resulted in one platoon having no female members for almost two weeks, according to guards. During that time, women entering vital areas of the plant were reportedly exempted from required pat-downs; Progress denied the charges.

Another pressing concern for the guards is sick leave. Guards currently get four sick days a year, which they must earn. If guards call in sick without having any sick time in reserve, Securitas gives them a point. If they call in sick for a mandatory overtime shift, the company gives them two points. Once they earn six points, they’re fired.

The security complaint filed last year with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network cited instances of management reprisals against guards for reporting on-the-job injuries. The N.C. Employment Discrimination Bureau intervened at the plant last year after receiving five substantiated complaints about improper suspensions of guards who reported injuries, reaching
confidential settlements in those cases. Like the sick-leave policy, efforts to discourage injury reporting can create situations where guards show up for duty too impaired to effectively protect the facility, which houses one of the nation’s largest stockpiles of nuclear waste.

N.C. WARN Executive Director Jim Warren hopes the union will improve security by fostering an environment where guards can concentrate on protecting the plant without fear of reprisals from their supervisors, who are Progress employees. “The whole culture there, as we learned, is marked by great suppression of information that should have been leading to corrections of problems years ago,” Warren said.

But some watchdogs are skeptical about how much of a difference unions make when it comes to guaranteeing the public’s security. Peter Stockton is an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, which in 2002 released a report documenting widespread problems with overwork and fatigue among nuclear plant guards after 9/11. Following the report’s release, the NRC launched a rule-making process on guard fatigue that included several public hearings–but not a single union showed up to advocate for the guards, Stockton reported. Asked why SPFPA didn’t participate, Maritas said he didn’t recall being invited.

“I am not wild about these damn guard unions,” said Stockton. “It seems like nobody’s out there representing these poor, underpaid devils.”