The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, March 07, 2003

Strikers doubt plant's future
An Illinois meeting on benefits brought claims of mistrust of senior managers and their intentions for the Paducah plant.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

METROPOLIS, Ill.--The meeting was supposed to be about benefits, but striking nuclear workers quickly got to the point, saying they don't trust senior managers of USEC Inc. and think the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is doomed.

"I have no respect for the leadership of that company right now," said Bill Hawkins, a mechanic and 12-year employee of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. "They're taking that plant and gutting it."

He and about 60 other striking members of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International crowded the Metropolis City Hall commission chamber Thursday in a meeting held by aides for U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald and U.S. Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois.

Christine Sullivan, the senator's southern Illinois director, and Jed Nelson, district aide for Shimkus, heard repeated frustration stemming from the monthlong strike of 635 workers.

Sullivan said Fitzgerald will hold a a 90-minute town meeting at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Marion Youth Center, 211 East Blvd. in Marion, to hear directly from strikers.

Hawkins, who last month organized picketing at USEC headquarters in Bethesda, Md., echoed concerns by several in the crowd that:

The plant, with employment cut in half by the strike, is being run by inexperienced salaried people working 72 hours a week, which had been a safety threshold for union employees. The workload is a threat to safety, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regularly has only two inspectors at the plant, which enriches uranium for nuclear fuel.

USEC officials say the plant is safe and shipments of uranium are going out on time to customers. Viktoria Mitlyng, spokeswoman for the NRC regional office near Chicago, agreed, saying the two resident inspectors have been monitoring the plant "pretty much around the clock" since the strike began Feb. 4.

"The safety systems are certainly not being affected by the strike, and the NRC is keeping a really close eye on the situation," she said, adding there were no reports of problems jeopardizing worker or public safety.

Highly paid USEC senior managers are draining the assets of the plant and intend to close it in favor of brokering Russian uranium, leaving longtime workers without jobs. The workers struck largely because USEC wanted to nearly double their share of health insurance premiums over five years.

"It's rather difficult to vote for a contract realizing you'll be netting less in five years than you're netting right now," said maintenance mechanic Robert Edwards, a 28-year plant worker who lives at Olmsted.

USEC officials point to a binding agreement with the Department of Energy to run the plant until replacement gas centrifuge technology is on line at the end of the decade. They deny wanting solely to broker uranium derived from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads.

Congressional aides organized Thursday's meeting primarily to tell workers about benefits and governmental services. Union members are hoping to win an unfair labor practices case against USEC, which they say would qualify them for unemployment insurance.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky said Wednesday that he spoke with National Labor Relations Board officials about delays in investigating and ruling on the charge, which the union filed the day the strike began. Although USEC quickly won an illegal-picketing charge against the union, that case unlike the union charge by law had to be resolved within 72 hours, Whitfield said.

"We've been assured they are going to move that (union charge) up and place it as a priority," he said, adding that board officials anticipate having a decision next week. The union accuses USEC of not bargaining in good faith by withholding benefits information.

Another strike issue is that USEC refuses to increase union pension and says it could have to supplement the fund, which is shrinking because of the poorly performing stock market. Workers question that and worry USEC will take money from the fund to prop up the company, which lost nearly $15 million during the last half of 2002.

Charles Morgan, a U.S. Department of Labor official from St. Louis, said the market is hurting the value of all pension funds, but they are protected by federal law even if a company goes bankrupt.

The workers, who are losing an average $3,500 a month in wages, also expressed concern about health insurance. On Saturday, USEC stopped paying for group health coverage, leaving the union families to consider paying nearly $1,400 a month for transitional insurance called COBRA.

Morgan told strikers they have 60 days from Saturday to decide what to do, and another 45 days to start paying installments on COBRA premiums retroactive to Saturday. He said an option is to join spouses' health plans, and he warned against "cheap" individual policies that don't provide comprehensive coverage.

A new insurer can't deny a worker benefits because of pre-existing health conditions as long as the break between old and new coverage doesn't last more than 63 days, Morgan said.