The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, August 03, 2001

PACE votes no strike for now
The union strongly rejected USEC's contract offer, citing Russian plans and other issues, and work is on a day-to-day basis.

By Joe Walker
BARKLEY THIELEMAN/The Sun--Can strike on one-day notice: Election committee members Steve Lewis (left) and Leroy Branham escort Daryl Belt and the ballot box after the vote.

Nearly 670 union workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant will keep working, at least temporarily, after overwhelmingly rejecting a contract offer from USEC Inc.

In balloting from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, members of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE) Local 5-550 voted by perhaps greater than a 99 percent margin against the offer, said David Fuller, local president. Their old five-year contract expired Tuesday.

"We barely cracked double figures on those that wanted to accept it," Fuller said, adding that the bargaining committee recommended against the offer. "It was an extremely high turnout."

He said the union has about 700 members, representing almost half the plant work force. The union includes various trades from maintenance workers to mechanics.

Fuller said the union decided temporarily not to strike, and plans to resume talks with USEC next Wednesday with the help of PACE international bargainers.

"We intend to work day to day, at least for the time being," he said. "It's important to let all our members know that they are to report for work on their regular schedules without interruptions."

Fuller said the old contract is extended by agreement with USEC. "One of the understandings with that is we may strike at any time with a day's notice to the company."

Prospects for a quick resolution are shaky because the union vigorously opposes USEC's linking the contract to its successfully buying Russian uranium taken from dismantled nuclear warheads, he said.

The new five-year contract would have terminated after the first year if USEC did not achieve any of three goals: remaining sole agent for the Russian uranium, securing better prices, and getting federal approval to buy Russian commercial uranium, aside from the warhead material.

"Hopefully we'll get these Russian provisions off the contract proposal and back in Moscow and Washington where they belong," Fuller said. "And, get some better wages and benefits for what we're rightly talking about."

Amid voting, PACE held three informational meetings at the union hall on Cairo Road. Fuller said the offer failed because of the Russian issue and "substandard" wages and benefits. He said the union was asked to make "concessions" in medical benefits and overtime pay.

USEC had proposed wage increases of 4 percent the first year, 3.5 percent the second year and 3.2 percent during years three through five.

Asked if USEC will consider removing the Russian stipulations and improving wages and benefits, company spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle declined to speculate.

"It would be inappropriate to talk about the details of upcoming negotiations, but we will work with the union to try to achieve a satisfactory contract," she said.

Union leaders have long worried that USEC wants to close the plant and broker uranium, a claim the company denies. Although PACE supports the goals, it has been unable to get USEC to guarantee keeping the plant open at certain production levels, Fuller said.

USEC officials say the union has not backed the goals and they merely want a way to reopen the contract if any part of the Russian deal falls short. Controlling the flow of Russian uranium stabilizes prices, they say, and blending the cheaper Russian material with higher-cost uranium enriched at Paducah helps hold down expenses and keep the plant running.

But the Russian issue alone did not defeat the contract offer, some workers said after waiting at the union hall for what they saw as an inevitable outcome.

"In the 24-plus years I've been out at the plant, this proposal is worse than anything I've seen," said Mike Turner, an instrument mechanic from Calloway County. "It's totally ridiculous. It just stinks."

Older workers, especially, opposed the wage-benefit provisions and tying "the Russian deal" to the contract, he said.

Fuller said the union had no problem recently approving new contracts with three firms for more than 100 environmental workers. Those pacts, with cleanup firms Bechtel Jacobs, Swift and Staley, and Weskem, provide pay increases of 4 percent in the first and second years, 3.8 percent in the third year and 3.5 percent in the fourth. They also contain "substantial" pension and benefit increases, he said.

"We would think at the very least that USEC could match the offers of these other companies ... but they have failed to do that," Fuller said.

In a prepared release, he said the union finds USEC's actions "even more unfair," considering that it granted $50,000 and $24,000 bonuses for 24 of the top 25 executives of the company, plus a $7.8 million compensation package reportedly paid to USEC Chief Executive Officer William Timbers.

USEC has said several times that Timbers' compensation is in line with top executives of other utility firms.