As a good-ole country boy from the hills of Arkansas, I’ve been called a redneck a time or two in my life.
I’m sure those who chose to refer to me as a redneck didn’t do so as a compliment. But I have to say, that I am proud to be a redneck. And, if you were up on your labor history, you might be, too.
I’m proud because I know that in labor history, it means I’m a "union man." You see, the early coal miners in north and central Appalachia created the term "redneck" in the early 20th century by wearing red bandannas as a sign of solidarity in the strike-ridden coalfields to identify a union man, and they called themselves rednecks.
We all know the word has since been used as a derogatory term, used primarily in the South as an insult. However, this year, nearly 1,200 nuclear workers in Amarillo, Texas, adopted the term and the symbol of the red bandanna, like those coal miners before them, to show solidarity as their collective bargaining representatives from the Amarillo Metal Trades Council began contract negotiations with Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contractor, at the Pantex nuclear weapons facility.
The Amarillo Metal Trades Council—a 10-union coalition of working people, who began negotiations with the company in January—have worn their “rednecks” while working at the plant, to show their solidarity in their fight for a fair contract.
On Friday, those workers voted overwhelmingly to strike, and on Saturday at 12:01 a.m., hundreds of red bandanna-clad working people hit the picket line.
As the president of the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department, I know the decision to strike wasn’t easy for these workers. No one wants to strike, but sometimes it is just unavoidable.
In this case, CNS wants to cut the health care and benefits of these highly skilled nuclear working people to come into compliance with a flawed DOE mandate called Order 350.1.
The Energy Department says that CNS, and all other DOE contractors, has to perform a Benefit Value Study (BenVal) every three years to determine the value of employee benefits at similar companies. If the study determines the value of the benefits at the DOE contractor’s site exceed the comparator companies’ benefits by more than 5%, the contractor must reduce employee benefits.
Here’s the rub, workers at Pantex—and other DOE-owned nuclear facilities around the country—perform work in an environment for which there are no “comparator companies.” How can anyone justify using a cell phone manufacturer or a home appliance manufacturer to compare to workers who maintain and dismantle nuclear weapons and dig plutonium pits?
So, because of a stupid, across-the-department mandate, the DOE is forcing CNS to cut health care and prescription plans for these working people who, because of the nature of their work, are at a far higher risk of developing cancer and other occupational illnesses.
And believe me, the DOE knows the risks, as evidenced by the fact that the federal government created the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) in 2000 to compensate atomic trades working people and their families who suffer from occupational illnesses.
There are other issues at stake in this strike, but benefits are, by far, the most important.
So like the coal miners who came before them, these atomic trades working people, wearing their red bandannas, are working together to fight for a fair contract, safe working conditions and benefits that ensure they and their families are cared for.
And, although those who have called me a redneck in the past may not have done so as a term of endearment, this Labor Day I proudly stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters on the picket line in Amarillo, wearing a “redneck” to show that I am a “union man.”