The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, November 20, 2001

USEC, union reach tentative deal
After 17 hours of negotiating, the union will put the deal before its members today at three ieetings and vote Monday.

By Joe Walker

USEC Inc. and negotiators for its largest union reached a tentative contact agreement early this morning after working frantically to avoid a strike.

The agreement with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Local 5-550 was reached at 1 a.m. after 17 hours of negotiations at J.R.'s Executive Inn.

Union leaders will hold informational meetings today at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to explain the agreement to its approximately 700 members. The meetings will be held at the union hall on Cairo Road. A vote will be held on Monday.

The union had threatened to strike at midnight Monday if an agreement wasn't reached, but delayed the strike call while negotiations continued.

The frantic efforts to reach an agreement began at 10:45 p.m. Monday when USEC negotiators returned to the bargaining table at J.R.'s Executive Inn after spending two hours reviewing the union's latest proposal.

The two sides met for 20 minutes after which a union spokesman said negotiators rejected a counteroffer made by USEC. USEC was told it had 10 minutes to "submit its best and final offer."

USEC bargainers huddled privately and returned to the bargaining table at 11:25 p.m. The meeting broke up shortly before midnight when USEC officials took a break to make copies of what one source said was a company counterproposal. The talks resumed after about 5 minutes.

At 12:45 a.m., USEC negotiators left the meeting room. A few minutes later, they were called back into the room and the union told them they would accept the latest offer that was on the table.

Officials on both sides refused to reveal terms of the agreement.

The union has been working under the old contract since Aug. 29 when negotiators reached a temporary no-strike agreement. That agreement, which was extend once, expired at midnight Monday.

Significant progress was made on Monday after Russian uranium, one of the key reasons why Paducah contract talks broke off three months ago, was take off of the table by USEC.

With that issue removed, Monday's talk at J.R.'s Executive Inn centered on pocketbook issues. "Pension and insurance are the biggest issues," said Jerry Johnston, vice president/regional director of PACE.

The August agreement not to strike was designed to buy time for the Bush administration to resolve several major industry issues integral to the long-term viability of the plant.

White House officials have been studying whether the 1,500-employee Paducah plant — the nation’s only uranium enricher — should remain in business and if USEC should continue acting as sole agent to buy uranium derived from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads.

USEC says mixing the cheaper Russian material with the higher-cost material produced at Paducah is critical to extending the life of the plant, whose technology is outdated. The union agrees, but has balked at attempts by USEC to tie the contract to the Russian deal.

Leon Owens, vice president of the local, said USEC received state department "direction" Oct. 8 saying the Russian contract, set to expire Jan. 1, would pend for a year to give the company extra time to resolve issues such as whether USEC can get cheaper prices for the material.

Although the Russian deal "is not part of the negotiations," it has not been resolved, said USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle. "We are in continuous conversations with the administration to resolve the Russian issue and we still believe that it can be resolved before the end of this year."

A recent union memo indicated the administration's main plan would give USEC the option to remain exclusive agent for the Russian uranium in return for a business plan with specific milestones. Those include running the Paducah plant for as long as 10 years at minimum production and deploying replacement gas centrifuge technology.

The old, five-year union contract expired July 31. The two sides deadlocked Aug. 2 when the union soundly rejected an offer whose wage and benefit provisions it called substandard.

Union officials 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.

The temporary agreement, calling for no strike or layoffs, included a 4 percent hourly wage increase retroactive from July 31, and for wages to revert to the old contract if a new pact is not reached.

Although the agreement was set to expire Thursday, both sides agreed to extend it until midnight Monday.