George Goodenough – GMB activist at Hinkley Point

Another interview that was too long to be included in its entirety in the print edition.

Interviewed by Dave Chapple, 12th August 2011

Introduction

I’m an ex-soldier, and I spent eight years after I left the army in the security trade-the international ‘circuit.’ This is basically ex-servicemen working as bodyguards to international dignitaries, often billionaires from theGulf States. I wanted to come home, and during 2002/3 I took up a 12-month fixed term contract at ‘The Point.’

I went back on the circuit for another four years, but at the age of 40, married and keen to settle down, I went back to Hinkley Point as a security guard: I felt it offered me the best standard of living using the skills I’d acquired on the circuit. This was July 2007 and this time my contract was permanent.

I served in the first Gulf War, and I’m a member of the Gulf War Veterans and Families Association. I do suffer from Gulf War syndrome: my prime suspect is the anthrax jab which is the single most likely cause of the syndrome.

EDF is a huge company: it runs eight stations in Britain, and about twenty over inFrance.

At Hinkley Point there is a security group head, but the guard’s senior manager is the overall plant manager who can hire and fire us. The station director runs the site, supported by the plant manager and the operations manager. All these senior staff would have been engineer trained, unlike the finance or training managers. The whole question of managers and their status is difficult for an ex-squaddie like me, because I’ve never worked anywhere else: so the station director would be a lieutenant-colonel; plant and ops managers would be majors; other senior managers would be captains, and desk engineers sergeant-majors.

Managers might be personal contract holders, while engineers would tend to be on national pay scales. Engineers might be earning up to £75,000 basic at pay scale 44. National pay bands consist of platforms and pay points. There is no local or plant pay bargaining. The highest pay point a security guard can reach is twelve, but they go up to 44. So we are a long way down the food chain: those higher up earn a lot of money!

The station cleaning staff have come under several contractors since they were directly employed, they now come under Balfour-Beatty. I was an industrial cleaner during the ‘outage’-plant shutdown in 2006 and I was on £7 an hour basic. So cleaners are on less than us guards.

On site as a whole we have 45 GMB members. The majority of manual staff is in Unite, while Prospect have the managers and engineers. Security staff are in Unite or the GMB. Total workforce at both A and B stations must be over 1,000, with a 90% take up of trade union membership. There are also many contractors on both sites at any one time, especially at the Magnox de-commissioned station. Doosan-Babcock is a major contractor: they are the engineers, the riggers and the fitters who maintain the reactor on B Station.

‘Nuclear Security Technicians’

Hinkley Point security guards-our official title is ‘security technicians’-are direct employees of EDF Energy at B Station, except once every few shifts when we work on contract at the de-commissioned A Station. I can say that I work for a nationalised firm-a French one! EDF are good payers, and in my time in the nuclear industry pay hasn’t really been an issue.

I didn’t take a large drop in salary going to Hinkley Point, for the simple reason that uniformed security in the nuclear industry is one of the few to compete with the London-based private security firms. My P60 says that my salary last year was £31,000: £23,000 basic, £7,000 for shift allowances and a further sum for emergency scheme membership. Overtime is of course on top of that. I’ve been there for four years and one month. We work two days followed by two nights followed by five days off.  This means we owe the company 176 hours a year. EDF claim this back by four training days at eight hours a day: you can pay this back by taking hours off your annual leave, or, on a quarterly basis, working three extra twelve-hour shifts. The system is called ‘option hours’: it’s a bit like flexible working, and we are the only section in the only EDF power station to do this.

Hinkley has a core gate staff, including five or six women, which is supplemented by overtime: we never have agency or casual staff. This is because we have to be licensed by the Office of Nuclear Regulation: staff clearance can take a good six months. This is a clear collective bargaining strength. Apart from the radiological factor-you have to have an understanding of health physics-staff training isn’t that rigorous. We have to understand how radiation works, its dangers, and how we manage the risks to ourselves. When we go into a reactor there are many safety measures we have to observe. This sets us apart. We are not necessarily more intelligent than other security careers-five C passes at GCSE is the minimum-but nuclear security jobs are sought after: we have just recruited three new staff from interviewing two hundred, so, inevitably, the interviewers will tend to go for the better educated.

As a security guard I am pigeon-holed: we are not allowed to have brains. I will never come over their radar because I don’t fit their idea of an intelligent person. What drove me into trades unionism in the first place was that we were being treated as second-class citizens: overworked, misunderstood and undervalued and, yes, underpaid compared to other grades on site.

When we won our standby fight last year, we are now fully consulted on everything. There are still occasional problems with other staff: the other day we had abusive comments when one was stopped and searched, but higher management supported us when she complained.

There is a fairly intensive identification regime for getting people on site. Security guards work at the gatehouse, inside the plant and outdoors, with most time spent indoors. I’m an old hand and the old saying is that if you’re not bored then something’s gone wrong. I love patrolling and I’m never happier than when I’m out checking the external perimeter fence and getting some exercise.

The main security grumble is that we are always running short-staffed: we have four vacancies on shift at the moment, and two on days, because some people are willing to work all the overtime god sends so EDF keep some vacancies running. The planning, advertising, interviewing and vetting processes for new starters take so long that they never seem to catch up with themselves.

There is no preference given to ex-service personnel. In the recent past, when Hinkley B Station was downsizing after the CEGB was privatised, the gatehouse was filled with staff who were not security trained. Staff who were otherwise going to be made redundant, but knew the site and its people well. Since the Security Industry Authority was established, there has been a preference to recruit license holders.

Because of the prolonged entry process for new staff, EDF are very reluctant to let people go, so you have to do something serious to be sacked from Hinkley Point-falling foul of the drugs and alcohol policy for example. The last security guard to be sacked failed a random drugs test. Over at Magnox someone was sacked when he was caught re-handed nicking copper piping, even after a plant warning that management knew this was going on.

National and local negotiations

We have national pay bargaining across allUKnuclear sites through the EDF National Joint Council. Last year I was invited up to GMB HQ to have my input into how national pay talks which had broken down could succeed. Contractors like Doosan-Babcock andCapethe scaffolders run with the Blue Book agreement-this was the battlefield of the unofficial strikes in construction a year or so back. As we saw, these workers have tremendous power and they have used it. In the GMB we have one national shop stewards meeting a year with our national officer Mick Rix. I’m quite unusual as most of these stewards are from grades working in the plants. The GMB has several good experienced stewards from stations up north andScotland, who are more militant than us southern softies!

Peter Lawson is the NJC Unite Officer, and he meets up with the Prospect and GMB lead officers. However, there is no cross-union EDF convenors’ or stewards’ forum below this.

Geography might be a problem but this could be overcome. I already know GMB stewards at the other stations. Most of them are probably socialists but ‘Labour socialists.’ The best way forward would be an internet forum as we could use the computers on site to connect between all theUKplants:Hartlepool, Hunterston, Heysham 1and 2, Torness, Sizewell, Dungeness, and Hinkley Point. I think the GMB would support such a stewards’ forum, but I’m not sure if there would be official support for a joint forum with Unite: there are trade union politics there!

I don’t think there have been any collective bargaining integration between us and the French EDF nuclear workers yet: I did hear that they got a higher pay rise than us last year, so the need for connections is obvious. TheUKand French unions are talking, but only at the highest level. It would be great to have an international activists committee! As a French speaker, I could have a role to play. There is huge scope, although it would be very difficult to get parity across the two nations.

The three trade unions do work closely together on site. Prospect recruit solely among managers/desk engineers, engineers, IT technicians and planners. I did ask a few years ago, out of interest, whether they recruited-I used the official term for guards-‘security technicians.’ It didn’t fool them: I was told ‘We really don’t deal with your sort of people!’ They see themselves as a skilled white collar union and, perhaps, look down their noses at us. Unite as a general union compete directly with us, and when they had a big recruiting drive some time ago the GMB lost a lot of members to them. At Hinkley we have a LJC-Local Joint Council. The GMB has one seat on this: the other two unions have two seats each. The LJC has a chair and secretary, meets formally a few times a year and as and when required. Clive Morris is currently the GMB rep. I was a GMB rep for three years: though never on the LJC. I stood down for health reasons but I still represent members and of course I am still an activist.

If management try to change working practices, members in that section will have an ad-hoc meeting. The steward will then thrash it out with the company, and if there is agreement, which needs to be ratified at a LJC meeting and signed off by the trade union. If there is a major issue there will also be a ballot of the membership affected.

Standby and pay battles

In my time at Hinkley Point the security guards biggest problem was lack of recognition: we were definitely considered the country cousins, and not just by management. That all came to a head last year when they attempted to change our standby system. Every time we were on standby for 24 hours, eight of our option hours were written off. EDF said that was far too expensive, and offered us £24-a pounds a day! I argued that as the system had been there for two years it was now established custom and practice. They countered this by comparing us with outside security rates-then about £18,000. We replied: ‘You keep drumming into us that we are special, but do you want us to be nuclear professionals or just security professionals?’ We finally agreed that guards would have a £1,000 one-off payment, and the new standby would not be compulsory, and paid at £24 for 12 hours.

In 2009 there was a real pay battle: EDF offered all grades 1.7%, when we had had 5% the year before. The unions had a consultative ballot for strike action and had a 90% take up. Clive Morris and I ran the GMB ballot and we had a near 100% for a strike. Even Prospect had a ‘yes’ vote. As we were organising the actual strike ballot, EDF came back and offered us a flat 3%. The company were in negotiations with the government about the new generation ofUKplants, so a strike at that time would have been disastrous for them. As an aside, I have issues with this percentage thing, as within EDF it makes the ‘rich’ richer and the ‘poor’ poorer!

Politics and nuclear power workers

Older members talk about the good old days of the CEGB/Central Electricity Generating Board, the 1970’s, the pre-Thatcher period, when Hinkley workers would down tools on a regular basis if the shop steward said ‘All out.’ A few years ago, nuclear station contract workers up and down the country, including at Hinkley, downed tools to support the unofficial construction strikes, so it is not true that there are no nuclear industry stoppages in the present day.

I don’t think nuclear workers had a loyalty to Thatcher as such: certainly there was and is resentment that the nuclear industry was sold off. But the best of a bad job has resulted, with pay and conditions better than most workers have. There are workers who are dyed in the wool conservatives, and a previous GMB shop steward took up the role because he felt the Tories needed representation within the GMB as a Labour Party-affiliated trade union! Many if not most workers are apolitical: politics is not often discussed.

Hinkley Point workers know that they have that extra bargaining power and up to a point they are prepared to act on that to increase or protect their living standards. But a strike of directly employed nuclear workers is very unlikely: it’s not in EDF’s interest to back us into that corner. If the unions ever called EDF’s bluff and went out, I think there is an agreement that we continue to provide the bare minimum of safety cover.

I don’t actually think that this government is that pro-nuclear: yes they have agreed new stations, but only if they have no financial input. They can’t be overjoyed that they are dealing with a French nationalised company-Electricite deFrance- with no shareholders except one company, Centrica, with a minority shareholding.

I don’t hide my political views: my fellow workers all know that I’m a member of the Socialist Party. They indulge me when occasionally I get on my soapbox and go on about Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, but we do have discussions: I’ve had comments when I’ve used the word ‘comrade’ on the gatehouse union notice board!

There seems to be little overt racism at Hinkley Point, perhaps because the industry, the professional expertise, is so obviously international. There is however, cynicism that most of the ordinary jobs with the proposed C Station will not be local at all: if they are planning a contractors village like they had before, how many workers will be coming from their Bridgwater home?

A safe place to work?

Workers do die of brain tumours and leukaemia after they retire from Hinkley Point: whether this is higher than in other industries I really don’t know. Health and Safety in the nuclear industry is like OCD/obsessive compulsive disorder: it is hammered into you all the time. For example, when you walk in the plant, there is this great big sign: ‘What will you do for nuclear safety today?’ There is a different safety message every day and every week: today mine was fire safety. There is a site Joint H&S Committee, which Roger Stendella from Unite represents security guards on.

Yes, it’s good that management are so Health and Safety orientated, but to be cynical, health and safety incidents in nuclear power plants give massive publicity for the anti-nuclear campaigns. Therefore, the message goes, we have to be on guard all the time, if we wish to keep electricity being generated and if we wish to keep our jobs, and management their huge bonuses and their very comfortable lifestyles. So you can look at this from a humanistic view that they are looking after us, or a capitalist view that they are protecting their assets. Either way, they are fanatical about health and safety.

Three years ago there was a significant incident when there was a release of gas and seven workers had to be taken away for de-contamination. It was officially reported that none had ingested radiation. I believe that was true, as those guys ARE still out there working. Security guards think that from day to day their working environment IS safe.

As we’ve seen atFukushimaandChernobyl, nuclear safety is all or nothing: when it’s going right nuclear is the greenest possible power source. You should see the wildlife around our perimeter fence: the rabbits are practically tame because there is no one to shoot them. You can get really close to badgers and within ten metres of the deer: the place is teeming with wildlife because there is no human threat. But when it goes wrong, yes, it’s a massive threat to human life! Potentially you are working in a nightmare environment, but you feel that from day to day it is safe.

Nuclear and other workers

One thing that might prevent a Hinkley Point worker who promotes alternatives to nuclear power being condemned as a traitor is that EDF itself promotes alternative energy sources: for example, we had a road show from the EDF solar energy branch the other day, encouraging us to fit solar panels: and we are ‘Electricite de France’ not ‘Nuclear de France.’

I happen to have a great interest in the prospects for solar power in the Sahara desert andEgyptin particular. Two weeks ago we had one of those ‘happy-clappy’ worker participation sessions: the EDF leader asked us: ‘What one thing could we do that would make you really happy to work for EDF?’ She was surprised by my answer: ‘Follow me to an oasis inEgyptand enable solar power to be installed there.” Not an answer she expected from a security guard! The EDF community liaison officer there was so relieved: he was bricking himself that I was going to launch a militant attack on the company. I also said that as a socialist I had no problem working for EDF because it was nationalised.

The nuclear safety issue has been a great barrier to workers outside nuclear plants coming together to fight with us on general working-class issues. One way would be to have effective local branches that cover other workplaces. I also think the trade union movement could gain enormously if there was more encouragement from national unions for nuclear shop stewards to become delegates to local trades union councils. Pro and anti-nuclear trades unionists meeting and learning from each other. I don’t think our Prospect reps would be interested, but I’ve tried to get the Unite reps interested in becoming delegates to Bridgwater TUC.

If nuclear workers just find trades councils being dominated by anti-nuclear delegates, then that will alienate them back into isolation. That in turn will mean that to the detriment of many trades councils the largest local employer with the best pay and conditions will not be represented. Hinkley Point workers might see any local discussion about nuclear power not as a challenge to nuclear power but as a challenge to their livelihoods. That has to be faced. It is not the place of any trades unionist to try and lose another trade union member their job. This is where that defensiveness comes from. However, I do believe that trades councils should not shy away from properly arranged debate and discussion about nuclear power: as you know, as an ex-squaddie I’ve spoken to the Bridgwater Peace Group.

One last thing: the nuclear industry is still male-dominated, although Chloe, my step-daughter, is one of the first female de-commissioning mechanical engineers in the industry. She has got her HNC, has finished her apprenticeship fromBridgwaterCollegeand has her graduation ceremony in September. She’ll be earning more than I do soon!



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