The first strike by workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in 24 years is a matter of legacy to some.
By Joe Walker email@example.com
Chris Naas, a 29-year worker at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, said Tuesday that his concerns stem from seeing his dad suffer after retiring from the plant many years ago. "He lived 20 years, and his pension was still about $240 (a week). He died from exposure to this place."
Although the plant is considered much safer than just 20 years ago, Naas said current longtime workers worry about latent diseases from exposure before USEC took over in 1993. "There are countless stories about sick workers out here," he said. "This is what we're trying to fight — those stories that are still going to be true for us old hands."
Naas, who in 1999 testified before Congress about worker-health concerns, was among about 50 picketers who at 7 a.m. Tuesday started the first strike at the plant in 24 years. Picketing was limited to the plant entrance at Hobbs and Woodville roads, and on McCaw Road, linking Grahamville with the east side of the plant.
Leon Owens, president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International, and other members of the union bargaining committee were among the first picketers. Owens said later in the day that no new negotiations had been planned since 97 percent of the union's 635 members rejected a USEC contract offer Friday.
"After many hours of hard work and negotiations with the union, USEC made a fair and competitive offer," said Dennis Spurgeon, executive vice president and chief operating officer. "We have encouraged and supported continued negotiations, including offering to secure a federal mediator to assist us in our negotiations, and we hope that the union will agree to that."
Owens said the union has no reason to meet again unless USEC is willing to discuss increasing the pension.
Naas and co-workers Russell Viniard and Charlie Jett walked picket lines during strikes in 1974 and 1979, when Union Carbide ran the plant. They said wages were the main issue then, and the problem now goes much deeper than getting a pension increase and holding down the workers' share of health insurance costs.
"Lack of trust is a huge factor," Jett said. "I wish I could trust the place I work for."
He said employees worked hard to help the company financially and are upset that their six-month bonuses were $700 to $900, compared with $35,000 and up for managers. Jett said many blue-collar workers fear USEC will eventually close the plant and become a broker of cheaper Russian uranium, a claim the company has denied many times.
"The company has repeatedly said the workers have made this plant," Jett said, adding that workers were instrumental in USEC's remaining sole agent for the Russian material. "But when it comes down to doing this (striking), we're a bunch of traitors."
USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said the company is trustworthy, having invested "millions of dollars" in seismic upgrades and to allow the plant to enrich uranium for direct shipment to nuclear power plants.
"The Paducah plant is the core of our business right now," she said. "We are committed to running a safe, efficient and reliable plant well into the future, at least until (replacement) gas centrifuge is on line."
Jett said he, Viniard and Naas walked picket lines in the 1970s as young men with families, so they understand the concerns of younger workers who earn less and probably were more reluctant to strike this time.
"In 1974, when we went on an 11-week strike, I had three little boys," Jett said. "I got out and found another job."
Dhomynic Lightfoot, a 12-year plant worker and father of four, said many younger employees like himself are worried about not having an income, but more concerned about the tone of the negotiations.
"If we had taken the contract they offered initially, those in lower crafts would have lost money right off the bat," he said. "I'm an operator, so it wouldn't have affected me that much. But it would have really hurt a man in janitorial work."
Viniard, a 28-year plant worker, said many union employees think the Department of Energy should provide health insurance because of exposure risks, particularly risks many years ago to those who are now senior employees.
"They (DOE officials) in a sense were responsible for a lot of these exposures that they allowed to go on," he said. "If they paid the health insurance, it would in turn help USEC and us."
Stuckle stressed that the Energy Department has a program to test and compensate qualifying sick nuclear workers. Although workers were exposed before USEC started operating the plant, she said, USEC officials "care very much about those kinds of legacy issues, and we certainly encourage the government to do everything it can to make right with these people."
She also said USEC plant employees have post-retirement health insurance, but corporate employees don't. "Very, very few companies have it today, and any new company does not. That's a practice of the past that is very seldom seen today."
Friday, 97 percent of PACE workers rejected a USEC contract offer seeking to increase their share of health insurance costs from 10 percent to 12 percent this year and 19 percent by 2007. USEC officials said the average cost share for chemical and nuclear workers nationwide is about 23 percent.
USEC negotiators refused PACE’s request to raise the average pension by about $250 a month, saying it compares well with those of similar industries. Stuckle said that unlike some plans, USEC's has built-in increases as wages increase. She said 537 of the 635 PACE workers at Paducah earned more than $50,000 last year, including overtime and bonuses, and most of the remainder earned $40,000 to $50,000.
Stuckle said a 30-year employee with full pension would have gotten 18.1 percent more at the end of the proposed contract than under the one that expired Friday morning.
But Jett and others say pension doesn't increase after retirement. Rising insurance costs and fixed pensions cause workers to start losing financial ground about five years after retirement, they say.
Several workers on the picket line said they will strike as long as necessary, even though it is costing them dearly. They get no pay from USEC and expect to lose health insurance by the end of the month.
"This company is threatening to pull our insurance," Naas said. "That's the kind of tactics they're pulling."
He said Union Carbide maintained group insurance during the last strike and more recently, other large companies have done the same, knowing their employees will return to work.
Although the union pays $60 a week to 10 to 15 picketers per four-hour block, dozens more showed up at dawn Monday to picket for nothing.
"We can't afford it, but we can't afford not to strike," Viniard said. "We'll take other jobs, whatever we have to do to survive."