The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Bunning calls striking union workers farsighted
Kentucky's senator knows something about labor talks: He was a negotiator for the baseball players' union.

By Bill Bartleman

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning supports striking union workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and said he thinks USEC Inc. executives are being tough in negotiations.

Members of Local 5-550 of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union went on strike at 7 a.m. Tuesday after rejecting a contract that would require them to pay a larger share of employees' medical insurance. The company also rejected the union's request to increase pension benefits.

"I am sad that USEC failed in its negotiations with the PACE union," Bunning said by phone Tuesday. "I thought the PACE union people were pretty reasonable in their demands with USEC to ensure their jobs and their retirement.

"We've got a plant that probably will be phased out by 2011 unless something dramatic happens and the new centrifuge plant is built in Paducah. I can understand union members' wanting to ensure their pension benefits and their health-care benefits without added cost."

Bunning, a frequent critic of USEC and its chief executive officer, William "Nick" Timbers, said he based his criticism on news accounts of the negotiations. Bunning said he had not talked directly with Timbers but expressed his views about the strike through another USEC executive.

"It seems to me USEC is playing hardball with the union, and I don't think that's a good idea at this time," Bunning said. "The union is at risk, and the workers are at risk because they see ... the end of the road if in fact the centrifuge plant isn't built in Paducah."

He was referring to a pending decision by USEC on where to build a new uranium enrichment plant using gas centrifuge technology, which is more efficient than the gaseous diffusion process that Paducah has been using for more than 50 years. Completion of the centrifuge plant would mean closing the Paducah plant.

USEC announced Dec. 4 that it will build a pilot centrifuge plant in Piketon, Ohio. Putting the pilot plant there gives it an advantage when the decision is made on where to build the larger plant.

Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher and former union negotiator for professional baseball players, said the union leadership is under pressure because the company wants to reduce health insurance benefits.

"Once you get something, you don't like to have it taken away," Bunning said. "That's what happened in baseball. The owners gave the store away in 1976, and now they are trying to get it back. In the case of USEC, the union doesn't like management taking back things they had previously agreed to."

Mark Atwood, chief executive officer of C-Plant Federal Credit Union, said he doesn't expect a strike by PACE members to have much effect on operations.

"The credit union was around last time there was a strike in 1979, and we will do what we did then," Atwood said. "We just basically work with the members. We don't see it as any big threat."

The credit union, chartered in 1951 by plant employees, has expanded to benefit about 150 select employee groups, but the core of its 11,500 members is still about 2,000 plant employees, Atwood said.

He said the credit union has told Local 5-550 members about the steps in making contact to discuss loan extensions and other considerations necessitated by the work stoppage.

"We have a tradition of working with our members for over 50 years," Atwood said. "I see no reason that's going to change because of a strike at one moment in time."