By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
"That's the big question in the back of everybody's mind," said Ed Crockett, a maintenance mechanic and 31-year employee of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. "What happens now?"
In a rare move, members of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International approved their own version of a new contract with USEC Inc. Union President Leon Owens declined to release vote totals, but said 87 percent of the union members voted Thursday, and they approved the deal "overwhelmingly." Unions normally accept or reject a proposal by management.
Owens said the vote reflected "a level of expectation" by both sides — based on comments in previous bargaining — of what it will take to end the work stoppage that started Feb. 4. He said he would submit the package to the company and seek an answer by Wednesday morning.
If USEC approves the deal, work will resume within a few days, Owens said. If not, there will be more bargaining, which has proved frustrating and contentious since the union overwhelmingly voted down a USEC offer Jan. 31, he said.
Owens would not disclose details of the package, but said it should meet company approval on key issues of pension, work responsibility, short-term disability and wages. The proposal reflects "some movement" toward USEC regarding workers' share of health-care costs, but "some disagreements" on the overall medical plan, he said.
"We look forward to reviewing their proposal," said USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle. "We want to get our people back to work."
Some union members expressed doubt about that.
"I have no idea what the company's intentions are," said Bill Hawkins, a maintenance mechanic and 12-year plant employee. "One thing about it, the contract is ratified. If they start changing things, it's no longer ratified."
He described the package as "a lot less" than what the union proposed immediately before the strike. Workers rejected company efforts to nearly double their share of health insurance costs within five years. The company refused to increase worker pension.
Hawkins and Crockett said the work stoppage has generally been tougher on younger workers with bigger debts, smaller children and less strike experience than older employees. But Sharron Crockett (no relation to Ed Crockett), who has been at the plant only two years, said he has supported his stay-at-home-wife and small child by working as a restaurant server.
"There were times when I didn't know where the money was coming from, but we've made it fine," he said. "I'm ready to go back to work, though."
The average union worker has lost about $3,500 a month in wages and been faced with paying nearly $1,500 a month for group health insurance no longer funded by the company. Hawkins said some employees have piled up huge credit card debts.
"Some people are not hurting at all, and others are in dire straits," he said. "It just depends on who you talk to."
Ed Crockett said older longtime workers like himself keep holding out for early-retirement incentives, while younger employees face layoffs when they go back to the plant. The once "family-like" culture at the plant won't be the same when the strike ends because of a lack of trust in USEC, whose corporate offices are distant in Bethesda, Md., he said.
"I'd like to think the company really is in good faith wanting us to go back," Sharron Crockett said. "If they are, they should take our offer."