Local 9-677 Arbitration Shows Why Having a Union Protects Workers from Unjust Termination

Union membership gives workers better wages and benefits, and it also can protect them when they make mistakes on the job and receive discipline.

Local 9-677 member Gary Smalling learned firsthand how unions protect workers on the job. He works at the Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) plant in Erwin, Tenn., that supplies fuel for the U.S. Navy’s fleet of nuclear-powered vessels, and reprocesses weapons-grade uranium into nuclear reactor fuel.

Had NFS been a non-union operation, Smalling would not still work there today.

“I am appreciative of the work, time and effort on my behalf that USW Local 9-677, District 9 staff reps. and the International did on my case to reach an acceptable resolution,” Smalling said.

Heath Shook, the local’s past president and now its chief steward, said that Smalling had worked for 13 years at NFS as a nuclear process operator in the waste water treatment facility. He had a near-perfect work record at the time of his first work rule violation in October 2014.

He said that Smalling violated the rule by moving a container of Special Nuclear Material (SNM) during a “stop movement” order at the plant site. “Stop Movement” means that workers are not authorized to move SNM, except when it is already in automated process equipment. “Stop Movement” orders are occasionally issued at NFS, Shook added.

He said there was no potential for a serious event to occur as a result of Smalling’s actions. However, NFS gave Smalling a five-day suspension for violating the Stop Movement order.

Local 9-677 grieved the suspension, Shook said, because the union considered it excessive disciplinary action since Smalling merely lifted up the container of SNM and then lowered it back down onto the table in the same spot.

The local did not get to arbitration over the five-day suspension because five months later Smalling violated a second work rule when he placed eight mop heads into one liner. He was instructed by his supervisor to place the mop heads into plastic liners. However, due to his unfamiliarity with this job, Shook said, instead of placing the mop heads into individual liners, he placed them all into one liner.

After NFS completed a one-month investigation of the two rule violations, the company terminated Smalling on April 1, 2015.

January 2016 arbitration hearing

Shook said NFS, during the hearing, exaggerated the severity of the mistakes by trying to convince the arbitrator that Smalling could have blown up the whole east side of Tennessee and was a danger to himself and his co-workers.

Smalling’s supervisor, who told him to place the mop heads in the liners, testified that she and Smalling read the procedure on disposing mop heads together, but discovered later that he did the opposite of what the procedure outlined.

However, during cross-examination, the same supervisor testified that Smalling always followed procedures. Another supervisor testified that he never knew a time when Smalling did not follow procedures. Smalling testified that he would not read a procedure and do the exact opposite action required.

A few months later, the arbitrator ruled in Smalling’s favor.

“The arbitrator recognized that Smalling had, indeed, violated two workplace rules, however, the two incidents did not reach the catastrophic level the company was trying to portray,” Shook said.

“In contrast, in 2009, at the strong suggestion of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), NFS volunteered to shut down the plant for five months because of poor management decisions. The company did not terminate any managers responsible for those decisions. 

“In Smalling’s situation, the NRC did not even give the company a minor violation, let alone suggest they should shut the plant down,” Shook said.

The arbitrator ruled that NFS must return Smalling to work and give him back pay for his time off.

NFS goes to court

Shook said that nearly three months after the arbitrator’s ruling, NFS filed with the U.S. District Court in Greenville, Tenn., to vacate the arbitrator’s decision. The court issued a summary judgment on April 25, 2018, that upheld the arbitrator’s ruling.  

“On Oct. 8, 2018, Smalling returned to work as a result of a lot of hard work from our International lawyers, District 9 Staff Rep. Sheila Harris, Local 9-677 President Andrew Nelson and me,” Shook said.

“He has been back to work for over a year now with no issues. This incident illustrates the value of having a union at your workplace,” Shook said.

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