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

USEC, PACE fissure widens
Job flexibility joins the issues in contention after USEC rejected the union's counterproposal and the union rejected a company plan.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

As a nuclear workers' strike enters its second month, union and management leaders say their gap is widening on issues of pension, health-care costs and, most recently, job flexibility.

Bargaining ended after 2 1/2 hours Tuesday as USEC Inc. negotiators rejected a counterproposal by the union, and the union turned down a company plan to give salaried people more flexibility in doing union-related jobs. No new talks were planned as teams representing 635 striking workers kept picketing the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

"Right now it's apparent to me that the corporation just has no interest in dealing with the union," said Leon Owens, president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical Energy Workers (PACE) International. "I'm disappointed that it might take some type of (plant) incident to bring both parties together again."

Salaried employees are working 12-hour shifts six out of every seven days with staggered days off to make up for roughly half the work force's being on strike, Owens said. "After a point in time, that starts weighing heavily on you," he said. "I guess that's a risk the company has calculated it can take."

The company maintains that the work is being done safely and cylinders of enriched uranium are being shipped on time to nuclear power plants.

"We were disappointed in the proposal submitted from PACE Tuesday," spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said from USEC headquarters in Bethesda, Md. "We understood the union to say that their proposal would offer some improvements in some areas and would be a step in coming closer together.

"We considered the union proposal not to be an improvement. In fact, in some ways it was a retrenchment and would take the two parties further apart."

In Tuesday's bargaining:

USEC again rejected PACE's proposal to increase the average worker's pension by $250 a month, which the company says would cost about $26 million. That is a core issue in the strike.

Owens said the fund has enough money to raise pensions, especially considering the Paducah plant will probably close within 10 years. He said much of the money is invested in relatively safe securities.

Stuckle said USEC's latest financial report issued late Tuesday "clearly demonstrates" the fund is not carrying a surplus. The report said the fund, covering 7,200 employees and retirees, went from a $122 million surplus in mid-2001 to nearly a $14 million deficit at the end of 2002.

"This is consistent with most other American companies in that pension assets have taken a hit over the last three years with the declining stock market," Stuckle said.

The union offered to extend the proposed contract from five to eight years, giving USEC time to deploy replacement gas centrifuge technology that will eventually replace the Paducah plant. USEC expressed some interest in the idea, Owens said.

USEC turned down a union offer to increase workers' share of health insurance premiums from the current 10 percent to 14 percent in 2010, the seventh year of the contract. Just before striking Feb. 4, union workers soundly rejected USEC's proposal to raise their cost share to 19 percent by 2007.

Owens has repeatedly said USEC's proposed hike was unfair in light of huge salary and bonus increases for corporate management.

Stuckle called the new union proposal disingenuous because it actually was worse than an initial union offer to raise its share 1 percent in each of the third and fifth years of the contract. "This does not help the company deal with rising medical costs over the next seven years," she said.

Union leaders said no to a company proposal for tradesmen to do more of each other's work, and for salaried people to do limited union jobs in the event of shortages.

"They basically have proposed to allow anyone and everyone to do all types of work as long as that individual is 'qualified' to perform it," Owens said. "That is not only unacceptable to this union, but it would be unacceptable to just about any union."

Stuckle said the idea was geared to make the plant more efficient without being detrimental to union or salaried workers. She said that, for example, someone else might hold a piece of conduit "for five minutes" while an electrician is working, or that a union tradesman be required to "clean up his own mess" instead of having to wait for a janitorial person to do it.

"It's a matter of providing a little assistance to each other," she said. "It is not meant at all to be a threat to union jobs."