By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
By Joe Walker
About 620 atomic workers anticipate voting Friday on a five-year contract proposal by USEC Inc. that union leaders fear will fall short of what they had hoped for regarding health care and pension.
Union and management bargainers worked into Wednesday night seeking a tentative agreement or final offer from the company by today. Informational meetings were set for 7:30 a.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday at the union hall on Cairo Road, and voting from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
"We're definitely going to have something to take to the members," said Leon Owens, president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy (PACE) Workers International. "It doesn't mean we would recommend ratification."
The union will seek an extension of the current 18-month contract, which expires at 7 a.m. Friday, to accommodate the vote, he said. Negotiations started before Christmas and recently intensified.
The union represents half the work force at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Owens said the dedication to keeping the plant viable "is not going to change, but we are concerned about the tone of these negotiations."
He and PACE Regional Vice President Jerry Johnston detailed these concerns to which USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle responded:
USEC wants to double the union's part of the insurance cost, called a co-payment, and make other plan changes that increase worker expense and offset pay raises. The current contract — approved in November 2001 and retroactive to the previous July 31 — raised the co-payment amount from 9 percent to 10 percent. USEC, which had wanted to raise it to 12 percent, finally conceded, eliminating a major hurdle in protracted negotiations for the current pact. The company also backed away from substantial increases in overall insurance costs.
"Conceivably, under what they have on the table now, the members would be going backward as far as buying power," Johnston said. "It would take an excessive amount of hourly increase in order to stay status quo within a four- or five-year period."
Stuckle said the co-payments of Paducah plant employees are much lower than the national average.
"USEC's medical costs, like everyone else's, are escalating rapidly, such that we are trying to bring our employees more equivalent to that of similar industries and with employees nationwide," she said. "It's important to keep in mind that we have to take care of employees as best we can while maintaining competition at a time when foreign competition is increasing rapidly."
USEC does not want to increase pension, which the union says does not keep pace with soaring health-care costs and other factors. The current contract increases from $18 to $50 the amount added monthly to pension payouts, meaning about $1,650 a month for a 30-year employee. Surviving spouses receive half that amount.
"The union feels that pension benefit needs to be increased," Owens said, adding that senior workers are particularly disturbed by their retirement compared with salaries and bonuses of senior USEC management. "Those workers are also facing health issues, based on their years of unknowingly being exposed to toxic substances and possibly cancer-causing agents."
The pension "compares very favorably" to those offered by similar industries, Stuckle said. "We offer a defined pension-and-benefits contribution, fully paid by the company, in an era when company-funded pensions are often being eliminated."
The current contract was ratified by a narrow, undisclosed margin after 17 hours of talks. Bargaining had been contentious since the union soundly rejected a previous proposal in August 2001. Before the last-minute deal, union leaders and management were poised for the first strike at the plant in 22 years.
In early December, USEC announced it will build a 50-job test gas centrifuge plant in Piketon, Ohio, rather than Paducah. The plant is the forerunner of a 500-job commercial plant to replace outdated, expensive gaseous diffusion by the end of the decade. USEC officials say Piketon has the advantage for the commercial plant because it already has a centrifuge facility and has fewer seismic problems than Paducah.
Owens said that the centrifuge issue is not a part of contract talks, and that even if there is a strike, it should not worsen Paducah's chances of getting the commercial plant or keeping the Paducah plant running as long as possible.
"We have a dedicated, skilled, competent and knowledgeable work force," he said. "We will continue to look at and seek ways to help USEC, which ultimately helps not only this community but the workers at the plant."