The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

USEC executive puts corporate face on mediation
The company's chief financial officer is expected in Paducah today, making him the first manager from corporate headquarters to participate in bargaining sessions.

By Joe Walker
BARKLEY THIELEMAN/The Sun Still striking:Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant worker Roger Cooper waves to a friend while walking a picket Monday at the plantís main entrance.

USEC's chief financial officer planned to meet today with union bargainers in federal mediation aimed at ending a five-week strike at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Senior Vice President Henry Shelton was slated to fly in from corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Md., to make a presentation at noon, union President Leon Owens said. The two sides met all day Monday at the Drury Inn in a session abruptly arranged by federal mediators.

Shelton's scheduled appearance marks the first time a manager from Bethesda has participated in bargaining. Strikers had repeatedly said the lack of a corporate manager in talks gave the appearance the firm did not care about a new contract.

Owens, president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International, was guarded in his hopes for today's meeting and would not say if anything new was proposed Monday.

"As far as progress at this point, I'd rather not get into that, other than to say the union will continue to look for ways to reach what we feel is a fair settlement for the members," he said. Regional and international union officers have regularly accompanied local bargainers in the talks, which began Dec. 16.

USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle confirmed Shelton's appearance but declined to elaborate. The company has regularly said it cares about the workers and wants to end the strike.

Owens said Sergio Delgado of Orlando, Fla., director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services' Southeast Region, joined mediator Ben Jeffreys of Louisville in Monday's talks. It was the first session since bargaining broke off March 4 and the first involving mediation since mid-February, when the group met briefly with Jeffreys.

Jeffreys and Delgado, his boss, began arranging the meeting Friday night, Owens said. "We didn't know if it would completely materialize over the weekend."

The new sessions seek to narrow a growing gap over pension and health insurance costs since the strike began Feb. 4. The union has accused USEC of not disclosing some benefits information and therefore not bargaining in good faith. Joe Artiles of the National Labor Relations Board office in Nashville, Tenn., said he anticipated a ruling Thursday or Friday.

"The investigation has been completed and will be submitted to the regional director (Ron Hooks in Memphis) in the next couple of days," Artiles said.

The charge was filed the day the strike began. First District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield talked with board officers last week about the delay and was told a ruling would come this week.

Union leaders said a favorable decision would qualify the 635 striking workers for unemployment benefits. Besides losing an average of $3,500 a month in wages, they now are faced with paying nearly $1,400 a month per family for transitional group health insurance.

Also late Friday, Nuclear Regulatory Chairman Richard Meserve assured Whitfield the plant is running safely despite 72-hour work weeks for some salaried employees. Meserve wrote that the two resident inspectors at the plant are watching for signs of fatigue.

"To date, the inspectors have not identified any significant fatigue-related issues," he wrote in response to Whitfield's letter asking if the agency was providing "enhanced oversight" of the plant. Meserve said the inspectors, with support from the NRC Region 3 office near Chicago, are watching the plant 16 hours on weekdays and 10 hours on weekends.

Meserve said various salaried employees have worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week with two days off, since the strike started Feb. 4. "This level of effort can be stressful on the personnel involved," he said, "but experience has shown that this work schedule can be safely maintained for a sustained period of time."