JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Mississippi Power Co.'s contractors have agreed to hire about 1,000 labor union members to build its Kemper County power plant, and a group of unions says it now supports the project.
"Our previous opposition to this plant was based on those issues," Robert Shaffer, president of Mississippi's chapter of the AFL-CIO union coalition, said at a news conference. "And we believe we've satisfied our concerns here today with a recently signed agreement with the Southern Co."
Christy Ihrig, a spokeswoman for Mississippi Power, confirmed that its contractors had made the agreement around Oct. 1. It gives unionized workers a financial leg up in competing for jobs at the plant, she said. Ihrig disputed any claim that Atlanta-based Southern, which owns Mississippi Power, had tried to buy unions' political support for Kemper. She said she didn't know why the agreement was made well after construction began in Kemper County.
The unions had most recently opposed the plant because contractors for Mississippi Power were excluding union members from the $2.8 billion project, which employed 2,600 construction workers as of November.
Tuesday, union leaders attacked a former ally, the Sierra Club, which continues to oppose the coal-fired plant. The union leaders said the environmental group's opposition could cost worker jobs and ratepayer money.
"With all due respect to the Sierra Club, they are just wrong in their attempts to shut down this project," said David Newell, president of the Central Mississippi Building and Construction Trades Council. "Mississippi needs the energy. Mississippi needs the jobs. And unfortunately, the lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club could end up costing ratepayers as much as $500 million more."
Newell said he expected about 1,000 union members to go to work at the Kemper site, where the workforce is expected to peak next spring. He and Shaffer wouldn't disclose the specifics of the agreement with contractors, but Newell also said he expected unionized workers to handle future maintenance at Kemper. He said that a Gulf Coast union coalition has an agreement to handle a planned pollution upgrade at Plant Daniel in Escatawpa and to do maintenance at Mississippi Power plants in the southern part of the state.
Ihrig said company contractors have long promoted union labor on maintenance projects.
Newell said it hasn't been decided whether current workers at Kemper will be forced to join unions. He said he didn't think any nonunion workers on the site would be fired in favor of unionized workers.
It's common on large projects for unions to try to pressure companies to hire their members, but they often don't succeed. Though much of Mississippi's business community is hostile toward unions, Southern's workers have been unionized for decades, with linemen across the four-state territory represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Louie Miller, the state director for the Sierra Club, called the Kemper plant "a job killer, not a job promoter."
The group argues that rate increases could be much higher than the one-third that Mississippi Power commonly cites, especially because the plant's cost has risen above the original $2.4 billion.
The dispute over Kemper is the latest in a series of clashes between Southern and the Sierra Club. Monday, the club criticized former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for not disclosing that he was lobbying for Southern when he sent letters to newspaper editors attacking the club.
Earlier, an Alabama group sent out a news release attacking Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat who has opposed Kemper, for taking a $5,000 campaign contribution from the Sierra Club in 2011. The group said Presley's opposition had created needless delays and called on him to recuse himself from future votes.
"Given an opportunity to support this exciting project, Commissioner Brandon Presley chose instead to advance the radical environmental agenda of a group with no vision for our energy future other than to make electricity beyond affordable," the Montgomery-based Project for Affordable Clean Energy wrote Nov. 19.