Covanta Energy operates 30 incinerators in the U.S. that convert waste to energy. The company’s holdings include Hennepin Energy, an incinerator that employs members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Minneapolis, Minn., Local 160.
Covanta, which increased its earnings in 2008 to $50 million, prides itself on being an innovative, “green,” responsible employer. But the vast majority of Covanta’s U.S. plants are nonunion. And the company, which is seeking to develop new projects in Canada, China, Ireland, the U.K. and the Netherlands, intends to keep it that way.
In 2008, the Utility Workers Union of America organized 130 workers at one of the company’s waste incinerators in Rochester, Mass. Soon after the National Labor Relations Board certified the union as the bargaining agent in Richmond, Covanta instituted new work rules. The regulations ban any solicitation or distribution of “unauthorized” material anywhere on company property or company time.
Employees are also told not to provide any information about Covanta to the news media, government officials or other “outside representatives” without management’s approval.
The utility workers filed a charge with the NLRB, contending that the rules, published in the employee handbook, violate the National Labor Relations Act. The same charges were filed in every NLRB region where Covanta operates a facility.
On May 22, The NLRB issued a complaint charging Covanta Energy with violating labor law at 46 Covanta locations across the U.S.
In April, OSHA issued citations against Covanta for violating fire safety rules and for “maintaining” electrical equipment with duct tape and cardboard. The citations–based on an October 2008 inspection of the Rochester plant requested by the utility workers–found that Covanta had improperly stored oxygen and fuel cylinders side-by-side on a welding cart with no barrier between them.
The labor board and OSHA findings don’t surprise Thomas Koehler, business manager of Local 160, who says that Covanta has historically operated with a heavy hand leading to high worker turnover. With Local 160’s contract with Covanta expiring next summer, Koehler hopes that government scrutiny will help force Covanta to be more responsible for employees and rethink its hostility to unions.
The utility workers are taking their campaign for worker justice at Covanta across the globe. In the U.K. the national Trades Union Congress has requested that unions spread the word about Covanta’s hostility to unions in four communities where new projects are proposed. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions and national unions in Canada have voiced similar support.
This article originally appeared in Working Life on June 3, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.