The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Hard feelings linger between USEC and union
Union president Leon Owens describes an ‘in-your-face attitude’ by upper managers in dealing with union leadership.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

General Manager Russ Starkey has been walking as much of the 750 fenced acres of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant as possible to gauge the mood of union workers who last week ended a strike lasting nearly five months.

Most shake hands readily, but a few hesitate, reflecting the union's mounting resentment of USEC Inc. during the work stoppage. Starkey says more than 95 percent of the roughly 530 remaining members of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical Workers International are glad to be back.

"There are no bad people out here," he said. "Striking is the right of a labor union. I don't like it, but I respect it. Now we need to put that behind us."

That may be more easily said than done because the company's stance is more business-like and impersonal than ever, said Leon Owens, president of the union.

"My personal opinion is, there has been an in-your-face attitude that I've seen by upper managers directed toward union leadership," Owens said. "That type of attitude is not warranted, nor did we reach a contract settlement with senior USEC management from Bethesda (Md.) in that spirit."

During a back-to-work vote Thursday, some union members expressed concern that floor supervisors might abuse their authority after the protracted strike. So far, foremen have been very welcoming and helpful in discussing the more than 170 procedural changes since the strike, Owens said, adding, "There is a mutual respect overall among the workers and front-line supervisors."

Having done union work during the strike should give supervisors better understanding of union problems, concerns and suggestions for improvement, Starkey said.

Before and during the strike, the plant steadily improved in many areas, such as safety, absenteeism and limiting work hours, he said. USEC expects that to continue, but it will take time for the entire work force — now at about 1,300 after 219 early retirements and layoffs this year — to readjust, Starkey said. "Right now we need to be safe and deliberate in what we do."

Life after the strike is the subject of a thick plan covering everything from training to the "healing process" involved, he said.

"We started planning about the second week of the strike (which started Feb. 4) with no idea we'd be talking about something that would last five months. ... Each month the strike went on, the training requirements just built and built and built."

Because the plant enriches uranium for nuclear fuel, radiation-protection training is mandatory for every worker every two years. Refresher training takes four to eight hours, while basic retraining lasts four days, Starkey said.

After approving an eight-year contract, union workers attended orientation sessions Friday at Heath High School. Each employee received a customized training folder.

"It was a phenomenal amount of work to put that together," Starkey said. "We were dealing with about 2,000 individual training requirements."

Starkey said 80 to 90 percent of retraining has been done, and he expects the rest to be finished by early next week. Owens agreed that the plant has done "a yeoman's job" with training, health checkups and other facets of returning to work.

During the strike, the union vigorously fought USEC efforts to broaden union job responsibilities. The settlement sets out a six-month learning period and requires union workers to perform administrative tasks such as developing work permits, logging equipment status, verifying work packages and operating self-directed work crews. It also spells out other support jobs, ranging from wiping down equipment to helping other craft workers.

"We haven't seen that in action, but based on the briefings, there has already been an expansion on what had been discussed at the negotiating table," Owens said. "That will definitely be in the forefront of things to be dealt with."

Flow charts have been developed to help workers and supervisors decide which tasks fit contract language, and some minor points must be worked out, Starkey said.

"I've got this really simple-minded way of looking at this kind of thing," he said. "That is, what do I do at home? Do I call a carpenter when I've got to fix a little railing outside the house? Do I feel I've got to have a contract painter to paint my house? Do I go get the scaffolding people to build a scaffold or get me a ladder so that an electrician can go up and change a light bulb?

"I don't do any of those things at home. In the final analysis, why should we run our business like that?"