The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, March 18, 2003

PACE rejects latest offer from USEC, fears more job cuts
The two sides met for about an hour Monday with a federal mediator. No new talks were set in the 6-week-old strike.

By Joe Walker

After rejecting the company's latest contract offer as substandard, nuclear workers' union leaders are pondering whether to withdraw or appeal an unfair labor practices charge against USEC Inc.

Leon Owens, president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy (PACE) Workers International, said he thinks the company will cut even more jobs after 635 striking members return to work. The company, which announced in December that it will eliminate 200 jobs this year through retirements and layoffs, stands by "that commitment," spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said.

"I think the company needs to look very strongly at its position because the longer the work stoppage continues, the more difficult it will be for us to move forward and maintain the company in a viable position," Owens said.

He said the union offer is fair for the workers and allows USEC to be profitable and have money to invest in ventures such as new uranium enrichment technology.

The two sides met for about an hour Monday with federal mediator Ben Jeffries of Louisville. No new talks were set in the 6-week-old strike.

Owens said he had not decided whether to do about an anticipated unfavorable ruling by the National Labor Relations Board. The strike is costing union workers an average of $3,500 a month, and an appeal could be lengthy, he said, and the chances of winning are "very slim."

USEC managers denied withholding benefits information during bargaining. A victory would have qualified the striking workers for unemployment benefits.

Owens said he still believes the charge has merit and appreciates efforts by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, to speed the investigation without taking sides.

The union and company are far apart on issues of pension and health insurance costs. While veteran workers have gone through earlier strikes, this has been "a learning process" for younger union members, Owens said.

"As far as lengthy delays, we've told them to expect that because both sides will continue until they have exhausted all available avenues," he said. "Even though we were hopeful for a favorable (board) decision, that will by no means dampen our spirits and we will continue to press forward and represent the membership."

Last week, USEC Chief Financial Officer Henry Shelton told Owens that the union's initial proposal would cost $28 million more than the company's initial $12 million proposal. Owens said Monday that he has calculated a maximum $17 million cost for the union package, liberally assuming that all workers earn top wages.

USEC's counterproposal Monday was designed to move the two sides closer, Stuckle said.

"Our proposal contained an increase in pension. We hoped this offer would be given serious consideration by the union and would move the parties closer to resolution," she said. "The union president rejected our offer immediately, saying he would not even discuss it with his bargaining committee."

Earlier, Owens complained that USEC wanted salaried workers to help more with union jobs. Stuckle said Monday's proposal was modified to address what the company thinks was a misinterpretation by the union. The change is similar to "work responsibility" programs at other companies with employees represented by PACE, she said.

"The new characterization of the program makes it very clear that we are referring to incidental work activities and would not affect the core work of a classification," she said.