The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Last-minute deal averts USEC walkout
A tentative contract, reached at 1 a.m. Tuesday after 17 hours of bargaining, will be voted on Monday by 664 PACE union members.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

Before settling on a last-minute deal in Tuesday's wee hours, union leaders and management were poised for the first strike in 22 years at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, the nation's sole remaining uranium-enrichment facility.

A tentative 18-month contract, reached at 1 a.m. after 17 hours of bargaining, averted a walkout and will be voted on all day Monday by 664 members of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International. They had been working under a temporary no-strike agreement with plant operator USEC Inc. since Aug. 29, four weeks after soundly rejecting an offer to replace their five-year contract that expired July 31.

Donna Steele, president of the union, said about 75 percent of the members attended one of three informational meetings on Tuesday to learn details of the contract. "That was a pretty good turnout and shows they are interested," she said.

"Overall, I think they are pleased to have something to vote on, but I don't think they are real pleased with everything we brought back to them," she said. "I'd rather not say how I think they are leaning, but I can tell you that every member of the negotiating committee recommended that it be ratified."

In the waning minutes of the negotiations Tuesday morning, Steele was repeatedly on the phone with union officials at the plant to prepare to strike. The walkout initially would have affected about 100 union employees electricians, instrument mechanics, firefighters, operators and others working from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Steele said additional USEC supervisory personnel were at the facility to take over in the event of a walkout. The union had made signs and picket participation lists.

In 1979, the last time the union struck, workers were off the job a month. Union Carbide was running the plant for the U.S. Department of Energy.

"We were as close to a strike as we've been since then," Steele, a longtime union official, said of the tension early Tuesday morning. "I think if something hadn't broken last (Monday) night at 11:30, we'd have been out. I felt I didn't have any choice but to have called them out, and I would have done it."

Thirty minutes before the strike deadline, bargainers in a conference room at J.R.'s Executive Inn began making significant progress on the finer points of the agreement. The two sides repeatedly swapped proposals, meeting together then separately to plan the next move.

"The big thing was our insurance," Steele said. "It was a problem for us."

She said USEC wanted to raise the union's part of the insurance cost, called a co-pay, from 9 percent to 12 percent, but the union held out for 10 percent. The company agreed to that and also eased off substantial increases in overall insurance costs, she said.

Another critical issue was pension. Steele said workers were unhappy that their company-paid retirement wasn't keeping pace with the soaring cost of health care. Although USEC officials refused to give a percentage increase, they did agree to raise from $18 to $50 the amount added monthly to pension payouts, she said.

"That was one of our sticking points," she said. "We wanted to help people that wanted out of the plant to be where they could retire and enjoy their lives a little better and not spend everything they earned on medical insurance."

A third hurdle was contract length. USEC wanted roughly a 16-month agreement, retroactive to July 31 and expiring Nov. 26, 2002. Because they didn't want another pre-Thanksgiving bargaining marathon, Steele and other union leaders insisted the pact last until January.

If approved, the new contract will last until Jan. 31, 2003. It will continue a 4 percent pay raise, effective July 31 under the temporary agreement, until next July 31. A 3.4 percent increase will then last the duration.

USEC, struggling to compete in a glutted world uranium market, wanted the union to participate in a so-called "strategic alliance" to improve working conditions, increase efficiency and otherwise make the plant more profitable. Steele said the international and local unions will agree to try the effort if the contract is ratified, but union laws prohibited tying it to the negotiations.

USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle declined to discuss bargaining issues, but said, "We are certainly pleased we were able to reach this tentative agreement and hope that it is ratified by a vote from the membership Monday."

Steele held three informational meetings Tuesday at the union hall on Cairo Road to explain the agreement. Although a new contract could result from the gains made since workers overwhelmingly rejected the August offer, Steele would not make that prediction.

"I don't know," she said, weary from about three hours' sleep. "I'm hoping we'll get a new contract because we're tired."