5-month strike ends, but deal bittersweet
By Joe Walker and Brian Peach
The work stoppage ended at 6:20 p.m. Wednesday when Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International approved a new agreement with USEC Inc. through July 31, 2011.
Union President Leon Owens said 94 percent of the union workers voted but would not release the final vote count. He said a "sound majority of voters" ratified the contract, though it's unlikely that most workers will be happy with it.
"It might not contain everything everybody wanted, but it wasn't a wish list," Owens said. "It's only human nature that some people will have resentment toward management, but I'm sure they'll go back and act in a professional manner."
Mike Turner, a 26-year instrument mechanic at USEC, said neither he nor everyone he talked to were happy with the new contract provisions, but after five months off work, they did not have much choice.
"You can only stand on your principles for so long, but then you reach a point where reality overrides principles," Turner said. "This is the best we're going to get, and what we have we can live with."
The contract is three years longer than previously discussed and has some gains — largely in health insurance costs — by hourly workers since they went on strike Feb. 4.
However, blue-collar workers must take on broader job responsibilities, which they had fought in round after round of negotiations with USEC. During a transition period, they will work with salaried employees who replaced them during the strike. As part of the new agreement, they also will watch some contract workers complete jobs that the union might have otherwise done.
"We still have some serious reservations about work-force flexibility and how it will be implemented at the plant," Owens said. "But I do think we've been able to better define the company's intentions."
USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said Wednesday night that the company's focus "will be on reuniting our work force and establishing a true joint venture based on ... safety, reliability and efficiency. As we enter this important era of working together, we look forward to achieving our mutual goal of ensuring that the Paducah plant remains cooperative and strong in the global marketplace."
A product of seven revisions since the strike began, the new contract calls for union employees to do minor work outside their classifications or that has traditionally been done by salaried personnel. Examples are signing off on logs, sweeping and cleaning, and drilling holes in walls.
Turner said he was going to have to wait until today to see if he has any new responsibilities, but he did know Wednesday that major changes are in store for the factory.
"It's going to be a different place, both in coming back from a strike and working under new contract provisions," he said.
The inclusion of new tasks is an interim measure until a year from now, when the union resumes talks about implementing a "strategic alliance" with the company.
Other highlights of the new agreement versus a proposal the union rejected four days before striking:
Wage increases each July 31 are 2 percent this year, 2.25 percent in 2004, 2.5 percent in 2005 and 3 percent thereafter. The old proposal called for raises of 1.7, 3.3 and 3.1 percent during the first three years and 3 percent afterward.
Employees' share of health insurance premiums will rise from 10 percent to 12 percent starting Tuesday, and 1 percent each Jan. 1 through 2007. Their share is capped at 15 percent from 2007 through the end of the contract. USEC initially proposed to raise the amount from 10 to 19 percent over five years. New union workers will bear 15 percent of premium costs, compared with 19 percent under the old offer.
The new contract has slight changes in some co-payment and deductible amounts. It calls for establishing a union-management work group to look for cheaper insurance options. If a consensus can't be reached within three months, USEC will decide on the insurer, subject to binding arbitration.
Workers' pension is based on a formula of age and years of service, plus a flat monthly amount that increased from $50 under the previous proposal to $110 under the new agreement. There was no language in either the old or new proposal on the union's desire to increase the formula itself so that the average retiree's pension would rise $250 monthly.
The strike has cost workers roughly $11 million at an average wage of $3,500 per month. Some are deeply in debt, and others have managed with extra jobs, pinching pennies and relying on spouses' incomes.
"My wife works, so it hasn't affected us all that much," said Kevin Newman, a cascade operator and 6-year plant worker.
Owens said the strike stemmed partly from a lack of communication between union workers and management.
He said workers thought the concessions they were asked to make were not warranted and they deserved better treatment because of sacrifices they had made to help the company be more competitive. USEC indicated the sacrifices were "something employees should do" out of concern for the future of the company, Owens said.
Significant progress toward a settlement started once the union understood USEC's long-term plans and the company realized how strongly the union felt about issues such as health care and pension, Owens said. He thanked USEC President William "Nick" Timbers for trying to understand union views.
"I credit him for recognizing that and acting in a manner that he felt was fair and equitable toward the union," he said.
The extent of friction over job flexibility hinges heavily on front-line supervisors who assign tasks, said Rob Ervin, a union instrument mechanic and 15-year plant employee.
"It will depend on whether they want to be realistic with it or if the supervisors decide to abuse it," he said. "Some of the foremen are pretty level-headed guys, and I don't think that will be a problem with them."
Supervisors who were hired just before the strike began had to jump into union jobs rather than overseeing work, he said, adding that some may have gained a better understanding of union work.
Though some were starting, Owens said other workers retired during the strike and he regrets that they had to go out on a negative note. To make up for that, the union will have a retirement celebration soon for those workers, Owens said.
USEC set these orientation sessions today at Heath High School for union members before they return to work:
7 a.m. for maintenance, stores, waste management and field services employees. Reporting time, 6:30 a.m.
8 a.m. for operations and fire services employees. Reporting time, 7:30 a.m.
Owens said the orientation will include training covering access to the plant, because there have been security modifications added since the work stoppage. Bomb detectors and X-ray machines that all workers must pass through were installed during the past months. Owens said the modifications were made in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and the continuing terror threat
The company reminds employees to bring security badges and dosimeters with them to the orientation. Lunch will be provided.