In the past, Labor Day has never meant more to me than the opportunity to sleep in on a Monday. This year, though, is different. For the past few weeks, my family and I have been talking a lot about what it means to be a worker in today’s society, especially in light of the fact that the country elected a president who would probably struggle to understand the hardships of the average American.
On August 15, my partner and about 300-some members of the security force at Savannah River Site went on strike.
The possibility had been looming since around April, when negotiations for a new contract first kicked off between UPPSR Local 125 and Centerra, the company contracted by the Department of Energy to provide security at the nuclear facility. Ultimately, a majority of the workforce voted not to accept the terms offered, and, because it is a fundamental human right of theirs — one protected by the U.S. Constitution, might I add — to band together and negotiate with their employers, they walked out.
I won’t go into where and why the two parties came to a stalemate, as there have been a number of local media reports highlighting the details of the contract that you can read for yourself. (As I can’t ignore the conservative bias of the daily newspaper here, I’ll direct you to one TV news station’s coverage.)
What’s been missing from local reports, in my humble opinion, is a glimpse at the sacrifices these guys make just to do their jobs. A full-page ad Centerra placed in the local newspaper Saturday noted that the compensation package it offered its employees was “unequaled in the local law enforcement community.”
The thing is, police officers in surrounding counties aren’t clocking in every day at a nuclear facility. One, in fact, that’s currently storing dangerous, radioactive materials — materials used to develop nuclear bombs during the Cold War. It's why my partner usually showers immediately when he gets home; he's afraid of possibly spreading any remnants of chemicals known to cause cancer. (According to the Post and Courier, more than 10,000 workers at SRS have filed a claim under Labor Department's Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, arguing their health was impacted by hazardous materials from the facility.)
Some on social media have called union members out for being spoiled and greedy. But honestly, I wish my partner could sometimes work less. His shift runs four days on and four days off — 13 hours a day. On day shift, he usually leaves the house about 5:30AM and returns around 8:30PM. This means he misses seeing our daughter, who’s just five months shy of her second birthday, during her waking hours for days at a time. And in order to avoid being forced by his supervisors to work overtime (thanks to a shortage in manpower, I assume?), he often volunteers to take on additional days just to be able to dictate some of his time off.
Now, as we enter the fourth week of this strike, I’m realizing how huge of an impact all that time away has had on our little family. Let me explain.
This past weekend, we were at my parents’ house so my partner could get help changing out his brakes. After the tires were secured and the tools put away, he decided to go for a test drive. As he got into his car and slowly backed out of the driveway, he was unaware that our daughter, standing with her papaw, was watching him intently.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time our curly haired toddler has watched him drive away. There have been many evenings we’ve sat together on our front porch and waved at him as he set off on his hour drive to work for a night shift. She usually doesn’t appear to give his absence a second thought; unfortunately, she is used to spending most of her time with me.
On this bright Saturday afternoon, however, she reacted a little differently than usual. Once her daddy’s car was out of sight, she ran over to hug my legs, crying. It was a brief lament, but it was enough for me to realize how impactful these last few weeks have been on her. Because of the strike, she’s actually gotten a chance to spend some real quality time with her dad.
We know that the union and the company will eventually come back to the table and find a compromise. In fact, we hope it’s sooner than later. But don’t tell me these guys don’t deserve to fight for what they believe is fair. They've sacrificed enough.