The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, June 25, 2003

USEC workers expected to return to work Thursday
The union is expected to ratify a new contract, although some employees may need as much as three weeks of retraining.

By Joe Walker
BARKLEY THIELEMAN/The Striking days numbered: Steve Carrigan (left) and Billy Hawkins sit Tuesday during their picket duty in 90 degree-plus heat at an entrance to the USEC plant.

Striking nuclear workers are expected to return to work Thursday morning at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant after approving a new contract today.

"I think the membership will ratify the proposal," said Leon Owens, president of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International.

He sees the end of the 141-day strike as bittersweet because USEC Inc. has cut 219 hourly and salaried jobs this year, carrying out a previously announced plan. All but 29 were through early-retirement and voluntary-layoff incentives.

The 29 forced layoffs take effect Friday. Of those, 16 have been absorbed by cleanup firms under an agreement allowing senior union workers to "bump" other USEC workers or take cleanup jobs. That means that only 13 people four from USEC and nine from lead cleanup contractor Bechtel Jacobs and its subcontractors actually are out of work, Owens said. Workers will switch to cleanup jobs Monday.

Representing about half the plant work force, the union's 635 striking members are scheduled to vote from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the union hall on Cairo Road. Informational meetings are set for 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Results will be known within an hour and, assuming contract approval, picketing will immediately stop, Owens said.

Sessions are tentatively planned for Thursday at 7 a.m. at the plant and 8 a.m. at Heath High School for workers whose training has expired since the strike began Feb. 4.

"There is a lot of training to be done before they actually resume work," said USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle. "Depending on the worker and how much training is needed, it could take a couple of days to as much as three weeks."

Bargainers reached a settlement Tuesday after 5 hours of talks. The agreement was formalized after repeated phone discussions during the past two weeks by Owens and senior USEC managers including President William "Nick" Timbers.

Owens credited Timbers with recognizing the union's strong feelings about certain strike issues, notably pension and health insurance. He declined to give specifics of the agreement but said both sides "came as close to the middle as we possibly could."

Other contentious points were job flexibility, short-term disability and wages. Owens said the union agreed to broaden job responsibilities while ensuring "the correct skill mix was maintained."

The 190 early retirements and voluntary layoffs were by longtime plant workers, both hourly and salaried, he said. Before the strike, the average union worker was 47 years old with 17 years' experience.

"You take away 30-year employees, and it does cause a void," Owens said. "I was personally mentored by some of the senior workers who retired last week. They're my friends, and I have strong feelings toward them."

Owens said he wishes the workers could have left "under better circumstances" and the union will have a reception for them once the strike ends.

Union workers wanted USEC to credit strike time toward their pension, based on a combination of years service and age, and toward accrued vacation. USEC reportedly refused, but the union maintained the option of negotiating or arbitrating that later. Neither Owens nor Stuckle would comment.