The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Thursday, February 20, 2003

Failed talks step up PACE trip
The unionsays the federal mediator had an 'insurmountable task.' Weather-permitting, the union plans to picket USEC headquarters in Maryland.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

Having failed at federal mediation, striking nuclear workers are setting sights on picketing USEC Inc. headquarters in Bethesda, Md., and pursuing an unfair labor practices case against the firm.

Company officials say they still want to resolve issues that led to the Feb. 4 strike of 630 members of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International, representing half the employees at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. USEC senior managers are considering trying to help expand a program to compensate sick current and former plant workers, company spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said.

"From the news reports that we've been reading, we understand the union's issues with pension seem to be related to legacy health issues from operations prior to USEC's time," she said. "It might prove to be very helpful if USEC joined with the union and with state and federal legislators to try to get the sick worker compensation act broadened to cover more kinds of health issues.

"If we all worked together toward that end, it might help a lot of people, and it might separate old sick worker-health issues from current negotiations between the union and USEC."

Striking workers oppose USEC's refusal to expand their fixed pension by roughly $250 a month. They say a flat pension and soaring health-care costs would financially devastate them if they became sick from prior workplace exposure to radiation and chemicals.

Union and management bargainers met unsuccessfully for two hours Wednesday morning in Paducah with federal mediator Ben Jeffreys, who called the meeting hoping to resolve strike-related issues.

Local 5-550 President Leon Owens said Jeffreys spoke separately with the two sides, then called bargainers back together to say the differences were too broad to continue. Owens had stressed there was no reason to meet unless USEC was willing to "move" on issues of pension, health-care costs, wages and contract terms.

"The mediator had just an insurmountable task at this stage in the process," Owens said after the meeting.

Jeffreys will periodically contact the two sides to see if there is renewed interest in meeting, he said. "I don't expect any movement from the company for the next two to three weeks."

Meanwhile, nearly 80 union members have signed up to ride two charter buses to picket the company's office building near Washington, D.C., on Monday morning. Organizer Bill Hawkins said weather and road conditions in the Washington area are a concern, and the union will decide Friday morning whether to postpone the trip. Plans are to leave the Kmart parking lot on Lone Oak Road at 8 a.m. Sunday, he said.

"We will probably be picketing after the USEC people go to work," Hawkins said. "We don't want to interfere with their getting into the building. We just want to get our information out and get some publicity on this."

The union also is hoping for a quick National Labor Relations Board ruling on a charge it filed against USEC the day the strike began. PACE accused the company of failing to bargain in good faith by withholding contract-related information. Members began picketing four days after overwhelmingly rejecting a five-year contract offer.

Hawkins said more than 500 PACE members have signed up for state unemployment benefits, which they would receive only if the union wins the labor case. About 450 of the workers stopped by the Cairo Road union hall on Wednesday to fill out forms. He said benefits would be retroactive to Sunday if the union is successful.

Stuckle declined comment on the charge, but said company bargainers hinted Wednesday about the prospects of helping expand the sick worker benefit program.

"We did say across the table that we are willing to continue talking and are interested in considering any ideas that the union might have in trying to address the open issues," she said. "The company is considering proposing a creative idea that might help."

Owens said the overfunded pension plan, which USEC inherited from the Department of Energy, has plenty of money to increase payments to retirees who may encounter health problems.