The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, January 31, 2003

PACE wary of USEC offer
Union leaders expect workers will reject the contract proposal, but there are no plans for a strike after the contract expires today.

By Joe Walker

Union voters are expected today to reject a five-year contract proposal by USEC Inc. but keep working at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant at least through early next week in hopes of renewed bargaining.

After more than 12 hours of talks, labor union leaders rejected the proposal at the bargaining table around 11 p.m. Wednesday, yet agreed to submit it to a vote today. Leon Owens, president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy (PACE) Workers International, said the bargaining committee is recommending that the union's 620 members vote down the offer as deficient on health-care and pension issues.

"I would like to think the members will listen to the concerns that will be raised by the negotiating committee and would in turn overwhelmingly reject this offer," he said.

Informational meetings were set for 7:30 a.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the union hall on Cairo Road, and voting will take place from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Although the current 18-month contract expires at 7 a.m. today, the union will continue to work under its terms until the first of the week, Owens said.

"We're hoping that during that time frame there is interest on the part of the company to meet again," he said. "By all means, we'd be more than willing to sit down and try to work it out. We're not going into this with a strike as our first option."

Despite pervasive strike rumors, the union has not decided to strike and has not told USEC of plans to strike, Owens said.

"We will continue to work diligently with the union to help reach an agreement that is satisfactory to both parties," said USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle.

A previous five-year contract expired July 31, 2001, but the union kept working despite contentious bargaining and soundly rejecting a proposal that August. Talks broke off until November 2001, when long hours of negotiating led to a last-minute deal approved by a narrow, undisclosed margin. Union leaders and management had been poised for the first strike at the plant in 22 years.

The new offer has wage increases of 1.7 percent this year, followed by 3 percent to 3.3 percent during each of the next four years. The union bargaining committee rejected the proposal chiefly because it:

Would incrementally increase employees' share of health insurance premiums from 12 percent this year to 19 percent in 2007. The current amount is 10 percent.

"We feel the medical coverage is adequate and should be acceptable, and proposed to pay a somewhat higher share of the total premium than currently paid," Owens said. "That's in direct contrast to the company proposal, which basically doubled the union co-payment over the five-year term."

Owens said other union concerns are about proposed changes in the medical plan relating to prescription drug coverage, hospital stays and co-payment amounts for physician charges.

Contains no language on the union's wishes to increase a pension-calculation formula by 0.3 percent, meaning that the average retirement-age employee would get an additional $250 monthly. "The company had absolutely no interest in that," Owens said.

Stuckle reiterated that the employees' part of USEC-sponsored insurance is much lower than the national norm and the pension compares well with those of similar industries at a time when many company-funded pensions are being eliminated.

"We care very much about our employees and want to do the best we can for them, but they're getting a much more favorable share of health-care costs than the national average and in similar industry," she said.