With the clock ticking on negotiations and thousands of Oak Ridge jobs at stake, a union leader and nonprofit volunteers on Tuesday urged Congress to reopen the federal government, now shut down for more than two weeks.
If Congress can’t settle its budget disputes by Monday, roughly 3,600 workers at the Y-12 National Security Complex could be furloughed, said Steve Jones, president of the Atomic Trades and Labor Council. Thursday would be their last day at work.
The high-stakes negotiations between Democrats and Republicans continued Tuesday, with the U.S. Senate moving toward a deal, just two days ahead of a possible default on the nation’s debt. But it remained unclear whether the House of Representatives, particularly its conservative Republican members, would support the deal by the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
Jones said Y-12 will go into a “safe and secure” shutdown mode starting Thursday if Congress hasn’t passed a budget for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1.
“Right now, there’s no money to pay us,” he said after a Tuesday morning press conference at the ATLC union hall on Viking Road in Oak Ridge.
The press conference was organized by Organizing for Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that was a spinoff of the Obama for America campaign.
Y-12 started an “orderly shutdown” on Monday, Oct. 7.
“We want these hard-working people at Y-12 to be heard,” organizer and OFA volunteer Joan Nelson said. “This is all bad for America, bad for the economy, bad for job growth, bad for consumer confidence—and the quicker we get it resolved, the better.”
If workers are furloughed, Jones said, only essential employees—about 900 of them, with about half of those being security forces—would continue to work to maintain the nuclear weapons plant.
The furloughed workers would not be paid but would be eligible for unemployment, Jones said. Their benefits would remain intact.
He said the possible furloughs are creating a lot of anxiety, with employees wondering how they will pay their mortgages and bills.
“This has never happened before,” Jones said. “It’s uncharted waters.”
The Atomic Trades and Labor Council, which is affiliated with the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, includes 13 international unions and 14 local unions. The ATLC currently represents about 2,100 members at Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“They are people with families, mortgage payments, people who support the local economy,” Jones said. “Just like the rest of America, some live paycheck to paycheck, and to stop getting those paychecks will have a devastating effect on their families as well as the local economy.”
ORNL has discussed its own possible temporary shutdown and unpaid furloughs if the shutdown continues in November.
Jones said he has written letters to Tennessee’s congressional delegation, but only U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Republican whose district includes Oak Ridge, has responded.
Jones said the work at Y-12 is important for national security, and he wants congressional Democrats and Republicans to settle their differences, just as union workers and Y-12 contractors are expected to do.
“That’s what we want them to do,” Jones said, expressing disappointment with partisan politics.
But Nelson took aim at Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans and what she described as their willingness to put the nation “in the poor house” because of their opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which has been at the heart of some Republican opposition to passing a spending bill.
“We want everyone to know that the inaction of Congress, being enforced by one faction of one political party in one house of Congress is causing these Americans to have to stop their work and lose their pay,” Nelson said. “This is not their choice or their fault. And it is not the wish of these ‘American People.’ There is no need for this to happen, and it needs to stop now.”
More information will be added as it becomes available.
Note: This story was last updated at 6 p.m.