By Jimmy Nesbitt and Joe Walker
Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International, whose 635 members have been on strike since Feb. 4, made the offer earlier in the day. USEC was considering its response for most of the evening.
An announcement was expected at 9:15 at the Drury Inn, where the sides were talking, but the doors of the meeting room remained closed at press time.
Union President Leon Owens said that in a "strategic move," its members would return to work at 11 p.m. Sunday under these conditions:
They would be bound by terms of the old contract, which expired Jan. 31.
Union members would receive "amnesty" for any problems during the strike even though "we don't know of any problems," Owens said.
If an agreement is not reached after six months, specific unresolved points would be submitted to binding arbitration for 90 days. The arbitrator would rule in favor of the union or company on each point but would not be allowed to "split the difference," such as reaching middle ground on how much the union's share of health insurance premiums should be.
Wednesday's formal bargaining session with USEC Vice President Dennis Spurgeon and others followed informal talks with Spurgeon last week, Owens said.
The negotiations marked the first time in the 100-day strike that the union had offered to go back to work without a new contract. The major issues in the strike have been pension, health-care costs and work responsibilities.
Owens said the strike is putting significant stress on salaried workers who are running the plant, and he worries about serious problems that could result. USEC has repeatedly said the plant is running safely and enriching uranium ahead of schedule.
Union leaders countered USEC after rejecting an offer that Owens characterized as unchanged from when the two sides met at union headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., in early April. Those talks broke off after two days.
In late April, Owens and other union leaders traveled to USEC headquarters in Bethesda, Md., where they met informally with USEC executives. During the meeting, the two sides agreed to exchange financial information to try to resolve huge cost differences in their contract proposals.