Local 9-677’s New Hire Orientation Program Builds Union Solidarity

Building union power requires orienting new employees to their local and following up with communication in the workplace so they will join and become active members. Local 9-677is doing this with its new employee orientation sessions that have company support and include follow-up communication on the shop floor at the Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) plant in Erwin, Tenn.

But this was not always the case.

During 2011 negotiations, the local proposed to have 30 minutes of time with the new employees.

“The company didn’t want anything to do with that,” said Local 9-677 chief steward Heath Shook, who was a committeeman at the time. “They didn’t want the union to have time with the new hires.”

By February 2019, the company’s orientation program was providing incorrect information to new employees, Shook said.  He said it was not intentional, and was a matter of the human resources director not having experience working with labor unions and understanding the collective bargaining agreement.

“There was so much confusion,” Shook said.

So, he asked Andrew Nelson, the local’s president, about approaching NFS with a new orientation program that management and the local would present jointly. “The company thought it was a great idea, Shook said.

Explaining the contract

He and the new labor relations manager, Kelly Grieger, presented the first new employee orientation on March 23, 2019 at the general employment training facility outside of the plant.

A USW Atomic Energy Workers Council meeting at the Local 9-677 union hall across from the Nuclear Fuel Services plant in Erwin, Tenn.

“I do most of the talking because I understand the contract, I am the former union president, and I have years of experience,” Shook said.

He said he keeps the one-hour orientation easy to understand with bullet points on issues like seniority, shift preference, pay rates, vacation time, floating holidays, the attendance policy, hourly sick leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the calculation of union dues.

“I give them information that is contractual so that the new hires know their rights and are prepared before they enter the plant,” Shook said. “I want to make sure they understand this is a contract negotiated by the union and is not given to them by the company.”

He tells the new employees that if they have a question or an issue during the probationary period or if they have a family emergency, they should contact him or Grieger and they will handle it.

“It is inevitable that someone has something going on that we can help them with. It takes a lot of pressure off of Andrew and the union committee,” Shook said. “The company, overall, has been pleased, too. They realize we are not trying to hijack the process.”

Shook and Grieger average one new hire orientation per month because NFS is in a hiring spurt. As of Oct. 31, the company hired 38 new employees. Shook said that 16 are in probation and 22 are members. New hires cannot join the local until they complete their six-month probation period.

“After they get their probation time in, I remind them what we talked about in our new hire orientation, like the floating holiday,” he said. “I went back to the new hires that came in February before the revamped orientation program and talked to them about the union and the contract.

“We’re trying to do a good job of educating new employees. It sure is effective. So far, everyone has come in and joined the union,” Shook said.

Local 9-677 represents 322 workers at NFS, which makes the nuclear fuel that powers the U.S. navy’s submarines and aircraft carriers.

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