The pact will run through Nov. 15, when officials from both sides hope a permanent contract will be in place.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
The seven-point pact was signed late Wednesday afternoon by bargainers for USEC and Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE) Local 5-550. It lasts until Nov. 15 and calls for:
--A 4 percent hourly wage increase retroactive from July 31 when the old five-year contract expired.
--No layoffs of hourly workers.
--Union permission for workers to volunteer for overtime if they wish.
--All other terms and conditions unchanged from the old contract.
--USEC to outline an approach for the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant to be self-sustaining.
--Both sides to reach a permanent contract, or hourly wages will revert to the old contract.
"We see this as a turning point for a new relationship with the union in which we can work together to ensure the long-term success and sustainability of the plant," USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said.
Besides pledging no layoffs, USEC agreed to outline how to settle the contract, said David Fuller, president of the local PACE.
"They're obviously interested in innovative and money-saving ideas within the plant itself," he said. "I think they hope to establish a new relationship whereby there's more of a partnering atmosphere and attempting to look for new ways of doing business that would be more advantageous to the plant as a whole."
USEC agreed to return to the union in 30 days with an outline on how to accomplish those goals, Fuller said. The company also pledged to have a contract proposal between Oct. 1 and Nov. 15 for the union to accept or reject, he said.
"If we accept it, we'll have a new contract in place," Fuller said. "If we don't, we'll revert to the status we're at now — with an expired contract and the 4 percent raise removed."
The two sides had been deadlocked since Aug. 2 when the union soundly rejected the last contract offer. Calling wage and benefit provisions substandard, Fuller said the union staunchly opposed language that the contract would expire after a year if USEC did not achieve any of three major goals related to buying Russian uranium.
After resuming for a day, negotiations broke off for three weeks until Wednesday. Fuller said the tone changed in that bargainers sought each other's needs.
"All I can say is both sides kept probing for a way to achieve something that we could live with," Fuller said. "We weren't prepared to take a one-year contract. This way, we've extended some to try to allow them to gain information they might need, but by the same token, we still have bargaining power either to strike or work day-to-day."
Stuckle and Fuller said the Russian issue was not a part of the agreement, but Fuller said the extension gives USEC time to learn more about the federal government's stance on the Russian deal and the overall U.S. uranium enrichment business.
Both sides hope by September, the Bush administration will finish reviewing whether the Paducah plant — the nation's only uranium enricher — should remain in business and if USEC should continue being sole agent for the Russian uranium.
USEC says blending the cheaper Russian material with the more expensive plant-enriched uranium holds down costs and preserves the life of the plant, whose technology is expensive and outdated. Controlling the flow of the Russian material helps stabilize market prices, the company says.
Nuclear power plants to whom USEC sells argue if the company remains exclusive agent and gets lower prices for the Russian uranium, it will monopolize the market and raise prices, forcing power bills to go up.
"Nothing in our agreement depends on the Russian deal," Fuller said. "On the other hand, events will probably unfold over the next 75 days that will shed light on those questions and give the company some sure knowledge of how they could proceed with a full contract settlement."