Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 members drove up before dawn in the union's Chevy Tahoes to the year-old, $320 million Holtec power-plant parts factory on the Camden riverfront.
They set up their larger-than-life inflatable "Fat Cat" mascot — a company owner squeezing a hard-hat construction worker — and greeted workers as they drove to the gates, handing them leaflets urging Holtec staff to "let us represent you."
The union, based in Philadelphia, already represents 5,000 in the area at employers including Joseph Oat Corp., which makes oil tanks at its plant next door to Holtec in Camden's Delaware River industrial district east of Broadway.
Workers at nearby sites are represented by locals of the Teamsters and Longshoremen, and workers at a Holtec site near Pittsburgh have been represented by the United Steelworkers, according to Bryan Bush, assistant business manager at the local and an organizer of the pickets.
But after a series of conversations with Holtec officials including vice president for manufacturing Allen Hickman over the past year, the unionists say company officials have declined to negotiate for representation or to use the union's skilled-worker training program.
"They've been trying to organize since the day the building went up," Holtec's Hickman told me. He noted the plant was built with union labor. But now that it's finished, "we are a manufacturing facility. We're very specialized," he said.
"As a supplier of products and services to the nuclear power industry, Holtec's safety, quality and training programs have successfully passed rigorous nuclear industry audits and regulatory inspections," said Holtec spokeswoman Joy Russell in a statement.
In a memo to Holtec workers from human-resources chief Jack C. Johnston, the company defended its labor and training practices. "Our current employment structure will allow us to continue producing the high-quality products" that nuclear plants need, he wrote, adding that the company had given 4,500 hours of training in line with industry specs and safety practices this year, enabling welders to boost their wages and some to become supervisors. He accused the Sheet Metal Workers of "disturbing" employees.
Holtec laborers in Camden start at $14 an hour, with welders, machinists, and other skilled trades paid significantly more, for an "overall average manufacturing wage" of $25.31 an hour, the company says, with the same retirement and medical benefits as other Holtec plants.
Union members say the company's refusal to work with them or their training program is surprising, given Holtec owner Krishna Singh's widely reported comments about the inadequacy of the Camden workforce, and union leaders' support for the "New Jersey Grows" business incentive program that has granted Holtec $26 million a year in tax relief over 10 years.
"We have more than 80 members who are Camden City residents" and would be glad to train more for Holtec, said Todd Farally, political director for Local 19.
"They complain about the workers. Give them the training. We can help," Bush said. Holtec has recruited welders from a Camden County College training program. In his comments to the business publication ROI-NJ, Singh SAID too many city residents who applied for jobs failed to show up for work on time and accept factory discipline. After protests, Singh clarified his remarks, pledging his "deep commitment" to the city.
Supporters of the "N.J. Grows" tax-break program that Holtec and other employers have taken advantage of include State Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), general vice president of the Ironworkers union, and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.), who, like his late father, George Norcross Jr., formerly headed the Central Labor Council in the Camden area.
But Democrats also have close ties to Singh. Norcross' brother George E. Norcross III, a commercial and municipal insurance brokerage owner, Cooper Health chairman, and Democratic fundraiser, serves on Holtec's board (as does former Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton). A political action committee, General Majority, which worked in favor of Sweeney's re-election last year, borrowed $250,000 from Singh, Politico reported, citing state election filings. Norcross is an unpaid director and not a Holtec owner, said his spokesman Dan Fee.
Bush said Sweeney gave the Sheet Metal Workers' organizing push his blessing: "He said, 'Do what you have to do.'"
"I have always supported organized labor and collective bargaining rights for workers. This situation is no different, and I will continue to support policies that lift up working families," Rep. Norcross said in a statement, adding that the Holtec plant was built under a Project Labor Agreement by contractors who employed union tradesmen.
But labor conditions at Holtec "went south after that," said Daniel Cosner, president of the Southern New Jersey Building Trades union council and business manager of Electricians Local 351. Cosner said the construction unions agreed to let Holtec bring in specialized workers to handle energy equipment from out of town, though that's not usual union practice. "We did that to build a relationship," Cosner said. "But after the agreement ended, Mr. Singh and company weren't too good with us," bringing in nonunion workers for later projects.
Cosner also said his union has "a lot of success bringing workers from Camden into apprenticeships," in response to Singh's complaints about the difficulty of keeping local staff.
Bush said Holtec's Hickman told him Wednesday that the company would rather close the plant than recognize the union. Workers at the plant have shown interest in joining a union, but have been led to believe the company "will shut it down if they try to organize," said Darnell Hardwick, president of the Camden County chapter of the NAACP.
But Holtec's Hickman said claims the company would shut instead of agreeing to work union were "not correct."
The plant employs over 200, but Singh has said the payroll could grow to over 1,000 in the next few years if the company wins additional nuclear power plant update and construction orders, and decides to expand in Camden.
Staff writer Christian Hetrick contributed to this article.