The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, March 15, 2003

Labor sits on USEC ruling
The National Labor Relations Board has yet to disclose its decision on union claims that USEC did not bargain in good faith.

By Joe Walker

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled on union allegations that USEC Inc. did not bargain in good faith, but won't disclose the outcome until the two sides have a chance to act informally.

"Our regional director (Ron Hooks) has made a tentative decision, but we can't announce it at this point," NLRB agent Joe Artiles said Friday. "We're in contact with the parties."

Depending on the outcome, the union could withdraw the charge rather than for it to be dismissed, or USEC could take steps to resolve it without a formal finding against the firm, he said. Artiles, based in Nashville, Tenn., said the outcome could be final by Monday.

Leon Owens, president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International, charged USEC withheld benefits information and said winning the case would qualify 635 striking workers for unemployment benefits. Benefit issues are central to the 5 1/2-week strike at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Owens said Friday that he could not comment until after he spoke with the union's general counsel, who was traveling. USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said the company had heard "no formal reply" from the NLRB.

USEC negotiators have retracted her earlier statement that the firm doesn't have the money to meet the union's benefit requests.

She said Tuesday that the union's last proposal would cost $28 million more than USEC's $12 million offer, and another $40 million in benefits would have to be offered to salaried people who make up the other half of the plant payroll. She pointed out that the total cost of $80 million over a proposed five-year contract was five times USEC's projected $16 million ceiling earnings this year.

Plant Human Resources Director Bill Thompson, USEC's lead negotiator, wrote Owens on Thursday that although Stuckle was quoted accurately in the Sun, she is "not a company negotiator. And, in any event, Ms. Stuckle's quote was not an accurate statement of USEC's position with respect to the economic factors surrounding these negotiations.

"The company, therefore, retracts Ms. Stuckle's comment."

Thompson wrote that a new agreement should fall within USEC's "economic boundary," but USEC is not "asserting ‘poverty’ or inability to pay." The letter said USEC will be modestly profitable this year and the contract should be geared so the plant can compete in the world enriched-uranium market.

On Friday, Owens provided copies of slides used Tuesday by USEC Chief Financial Officer Henry Shelton in a federal mediation session in Paducah. One slide showed the numbers Stuckle mentioned.

Owens said he asked early in bargaining if USEC was having financial trouble. If so, the international union could do an audit to verify the claim and then advise the local "to strongly consider taking concessions to ensure the continued viability of the company," he said.

"When we asked that of USEC, they emphatically denied having financial difficulty and saw no need of having the international come in," Owens said. "They basically said they could pay for and finance any request the union might make."

Stuckle's comments were "clearly a change in the company's position" from earlier talks and re-emphasized the problem of plant-level officials' not having control in bargaining, he said. "These entire negotiations have been and continue to be directed in Bethesda, and I think that's where our problems continue to reside."

The union proposal was "outside reasonable economic boundaries, considering USEC's expected earnings," Stuckle said Friday. "Financial resources is a term-of-art used in labor negotiations but was not intended to be used as a labor term in the quote. Therefore, the company has issued a retraction to be sure that the quote was not misinterpreted by the union."