The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, November 27, 2001

PACE vote backs terms

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

Relieved at getting a new, short-term contract in place, officials of the U.S. Enrichment Corp.'s largest union say they will refocus on economic issues to try to keep the Paducah plant — the nation's sole remaining uranium enrichment facility — running.

"This union has been very aggressive and very upfront, not only with USEC but with our Kentucky delegation, on where we stand on the issues," said Leon Owens, vice president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy (PACE) Workers International. "Our willingness to work to keep this plant running is not going to change."

In record-heavy voting all day Monday, PACE members by a narrow, undisclosed margin ratified an 18-month contract recommended by all members of the union bargaining committee. The contract formalizes a tentative agreement reached at 1 a.m. Nov. 20 after 17 hours of talks. Bargaining had been contentious since the union soundly rejected a previous proposal in August.

The contract is retroactive to July 31, when the old, five-year pact expired, and lasts until Jan. 31, 2003. USEC had wanted an agreement two months shorter, but the union insisted it not expire in November to avoid the chance of another pre-Thanksgiving bargaining marathon.

Provisions include:

--Continuing a 4 percent pay raise, effective under a temporary agreement reached Aug. 29, until next July 31. A 3.4 percent increase will then last the duration.

--Increasing the union’s part of the insurance cost, called a co-pay, from 9 percent to 10 percent. Local President Donna Steele said USEC, which had wanted to raise the amount to 12 percent, finally agreed to 10 percent, eliminating a major hurdle in protracted negotiations. The company also backed away from substantial increases in overall insurance costs, which was a key in getting the contract approved, she said.

--Raising from $18 to $50 the amount added monthly to pension payouts. Pension was another big bargaining issue because 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 the monthly supplement, Steele said.

Before the last-minute deal, union leaders and management were poised for the first strike in 22 years at the plant. The union had been working under a temporary no-strike/layoff agreement since Aug. 29.

Steele said Monday's turnout — 90 percent to 95 percent of the 664 union members working at the plant — was the heaviest she had seen in 17 years with the union. She said many workers were willing to strike and their main concern was the future of the plant.

"I thank God we got a contract," Steele said. "I think most of us are pleased we resolved this matter."

USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said, "We're pleased we reached the agreement and look forward to working closely with the PACE union as we continue to maintain our high safety and reliability standards, and work toward greater plant efficiencies."

After the August impasse, the company stopped trying to tie the contract to continued success in importing enriched uranium from Russia. USEC says blending the cheaper Russian material with higher-cost uranium enriched here helps hold down costs and keep the plant viable. Although the union agreed with the importance of the Russian deal, it staunchly opposed having it as part of the contract.

Owens said last week, and again Monday, that the State Department will allow USEC to continue another year as sole agent for the Russian uranium. Stuckle would not confirm that, but said USEC has been told it can start negotiating a new contract with Russia for potentially lower prices.

"Some of our people are in Russia as we speak starting discussions with the Russians," she said.

Another big issue for the union is supporting USEC in a bid to convert thousands of depleted uranium hexafluoride cylinders at the plant into safer material. Owens said that work is expected to create 150 to 200 PACE jobs.

A consortium involving USEC is one of three finalists for the project. The Energy Department, which had planned to award a contract in October, now is expected to name the winner in December, Owens and Stuckle said.

The next milestone for the union is officers' election Dec. 10 and 11. Steele, who has been leading the local since President David Fuller retired earlier this fall, said she will run for re-election as vice president, a post she has held for many years. Owens will run for president, opposed by Tim Cooper, operations committeeman, and Jim Key, environmental, safety and health representative.