The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, November 14, 2001

USEC, union contract on table
The temporary agreement expires Thursday, but the union has given plant operators until Monday before it strikes.

By Joe Walker

Negotiators will resume talks Monday trying to resolve issues that have left nearly half the 1,500 employees at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant working under a temporary agreement for 2-1/2 months.

Although the union could strike after the agreement ends Thursday, its officials have agreed to at least a four-day continuance, said Donna Steele, president of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE) Local 5-550.

"We've given (company officials) an extension until Monday at midnight. They called us and wanted to meet with us," she said. "I'm going to do that before we go out on the street. I'm hoping this is a positive sign and I've told the company that."

The union represents about 700 workers at the plant, operated by USEC Inc. to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel.

"I think there's a more positive feeling with the work force," Steele said. "We want a contract and we want it badly."

Joe Bock, a facilitator with extensive experience representing both union and management in contract issues, will attend Monday's meeting as a USEC consultant, said USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle.

The seven-point pact set to expire Thursday was reached Aug. 29. It provided a 4 percent hourly wage increase retroactive from July 31 when the old five-year contract expired, and no strike or layoffs of hourly workers. If a contract was not reached, the union had the right to strike and wages reverted to the old contract.

When the agreement was announced, union officials said USEC agreed to return in 30 days with an outline on how to make the plant self-sustaining.

"We gave the outline for the viability plan back about the time it was due and we've continued negotiations with the union about the plan since then," Stuckle said Tuesday.

The company also pledged to have a contract proposal between Oct. 1 and Nov. 15 for the union to accept or reject, union officials said earlier.

Asked if USEC has provided a new proposal, Stuckle said, "Not as such. We're in discussions about the contract. Our discussions continue to try to arrive at a contract that's suitable for all of us."

The two sides deadlocked Aug. 2 when the union soundly rejected the last contract offer. Calling wage and benefit provisions substandard, union leaders said they 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.

USEC says blending the cheaper Russian material with the more expensive plant-enriched uranium holds down costs and preserves the life of the plant, which has expensive, outdated technology. Controlling the flow of the Russian material helps stabilize market prices, the company says.

Although the Russian issue was not a part of the temporary agreement, union and management officials had hoped the extension would buy enough time for the Bush administration to make decisions about the Russian deal and the overall U.S. uranium enrichment business.

No decision has been formally announced, but recent union memos indicate the primary White House plan would give USEC the option to remain exclusive agent for the Russian uranium in return for specific commitments to keep the plant running for 10 years at minimum production levels while deploying replacement gas centrifuge technology.

If USEC is unable to run the Department of Energy-owned Paducah plant for the balance of the 10 years, the government would assume operation, contingent on support from Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, memos show.

Stuckle declined comment on whether the Russian deal will remain on the bargaining table. "USEC is in almost daily conversation with the administration regarding the Russian issues, seeking a resolution soon," she said.