The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, March 22, 2003

Gap remains, but PACE, USEC to resume talks
The union began striking Feb. 4 and objects to what it considers inadequate pension and health-care provisions.

By Joe Walker

Bargaining will resume at 8 a.m. Sunday in a nuclear workers' strike nearing seven weeks at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

"I'm hopeful the company will recognize the importance of understanding and moving closer to the union in addressing the areas of concern, which are pension, medical co-pay and withdrawal of work force flexibility, and other contract language that stands in the way of any settlement," said Leon Owens, president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International.

He rejected the latest offer by USEC Inc. during a short meeting Monday with federal mediator Ben Jeffries. No new talks had been set until Friday morning, when USEC bargainers contacted PACE Regional Vice President Jerry Johnston to arrange the session Sunday, he said. USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said she understood that Jeffries sought the new meeting.

The two sides remain far apart on pension provisions and health-care costs. The union opposes work-flexibility changes that USEC says are for incidental work only.

Union members, who began striking Feb. 4, had hoped to qualify for unemployment benefits by winning an unfair labor practices charge alleging USEC withheld benefits information during bargaining. The National Labor Relations Board dismissed the charge Wednesday, but the union is appealing to the board's general counsel. Owens said that is the only recourse because he has learned the decision legally may not be challenged in federal court.

He said he also will ask the state of Kentucky to reconsider not providing unemployment benefits, but he is not hopeful because the labor charge was dismissed.

Owens said he suspects USEC instigated a March 14 letter from the Department of Energy warning strikers not to misuse their plant-entrance picket site at Hobbs and Woodville roads. He said the letter came after DOE Site Manager Don Seaborg, who gave the union permission to use the property, was temporarily reassigned to Oak Ridge, Tenn.

"I feel there has been some possible external pressure applied because we're well aware that USEC was very disgusted that DOE had agreed to allow us to establish picket headquarters there," he said.

"That is absolutely untrue," Stuckle responded.

The letter, from Acting Site Manager Dianna Feireisel, warned against open fires or burning and ordered the union to remove "combustibles" from near burn barrels. It also said strikers must not dig or disturb the soil without permission, must pay Kentucky Utilities for electricity supplied to a pickets' trailer and prove the hookup meets codes, and not place any other equipment or property on the land without prior written permission.

Feireisel also told Owens the land must be restored within 30 days of when picketing stops, and that the Energy Department won't be responsible for property damage.

Owens said burn barrels have been used safely and only during cold, harsh weather. He said he did not get an excavation permit for the power pole because he understood the electrical line was on a state right of way, rather than DOE's. Strikers did some grading to flatten a parking area that had become rutted, he said.

"We appreciate their granting us permission to use that property, and we don't intend to leave it in a condition that is unacceptable," Owens said. "But I do resent the implication that we in some way have violated any safety requirements or their trust to use the property."