Superheroes in Honeywell lockout – Metropolis, Ill., at the uranium conversion plant.

November 15, 2010

From the Nov.-Dec. 2010 issue of News & Letters: “Superheroes in Honeywell lockout” – Metropolis, Ill. at the uranium conversion plant.

Superheroes in Honeywell lockout

Metropolis, Ill.–As you approach the tiny town of Metropolis, as far as 25 miles out you begin to see the lawn signs declaring “Proud Supporter of USW Local 7-669.”

Metropolis is known as the place with the larger-than-life Superman statue outside city hall. But the over 6,000 residents know their town should be more famous for the Honeywell plant–the only uranium conversion plant in the U.S.

The milled uranium product known as yellow cake that comes from the mines is transformed at Honeywell into UF6 gas, a fuel used to power nuclear power plants, in a four-step process that involves some of the most dangerous chemicals known to man. Thus it is not surprising that 42 workers have died of various cancers and another 27 have contracted cancer in recent years. A few workers have received severe hydrofluoric acid (HF) burns. Honeywell denies any connection between their production process and workers’ ailments.

During contract negotiations that began last spring, workers sensed that Honeywell wanted a strike. Honeywell’s final offer asked workers to accept a practical elimination of the seniority system, the right to contract out jobs and replacement of the pension plan with a lump sum payment plan.

Most concerning was the demand to substantially increase workers’ healthcare premiums, co-pays, and deductibles by thousands of dollars annually and the complete elimination of retirement healthcare.

When the union announced their willingness to continue to report for work past their contract expiration date in the hopes of reaching a settlement, the company seemed frustrated. On June 28 the company locked out its union workforce.

Honeywell brought in replacement workers weeks before the lockout. Given fears that scab workers would not be welcome in town, they are housed 40 miles away in what union workers call “scab city.”

But because the scabs lacked the training necessary to operate a nuclear fuel processing plant safely, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) prevented the company from performing the final two steps of the production process. Honeywell couldn’t produce a saleable product.

It was hard for Local 7-669 to understand why the company was willing to go to such expense in carrying out the lockout. But then they discovered a “force majeure” clause in the company’s contracts with their customers, which provided that a strike or lockout could allow Honeywell to break those contracts.

The company was locked in at a price of $5 to $6 per kilogram of UF6, while the current market price for UF6 is closer to $11 or $12. Could Honeywell be using the lockout to command a higher price?

Meanwhile, the toxic substances processed at Honeywell are a danger not only to Honeywell’s workforce, but to the entire town and region. Once in the 1960s and again in December 2003 there have been accidental releases of HF at the plant. In the 2003 incident, 75 homes had to be evacuated.

On Sept. 5, with NRC’s okay, the company attempted to resume full production. But that same afternoon a loud boom was heard for miles. NRC officials confirmed what the workers expected–that in bringing the plant back on line, the company had blown up one of the fluorine scrubbers.

Local 7-669 was preparing for a labor action for months prior to the lockout. A key element was the creation of Contract Action Teams. They also stocked a food pantry, school supplies and baby care items. These preparations sent a message to management that the local was not going to give up without a fight.

Management began plant distributions of a leaflet titled “Just the Facts.” Immediately the union countered with “Just Some More Facts,” styled to be nearly identical to the company flyers, but demolishing their arguments.

Honeywell sent a mailing to employees’ families arguing that union members needed to make concessions or lose their jobs. The union mailed out the actual contract proposal that explained why they could not accept the contract.

In the past, the negotiating committee worked largely behind closed doors, only consulting with the members when they reached an agreement with management. According to a worker, “Now everything is done out in the open.” That has been a key element of their strong solidarity.

The workers seem convinced that, given the uniqueness of their specialized skills, the company will find it impossible to replace them permanently. And federal labor law forbids permanent replacements in the case of a lockout.

But as the conflict wears on, the company is slowly bringing production back on line. As of Sept. 10, Honeywell had restarted production with the NRC’s blessing. In the meantime, the well-being and perhaps the continued existence of a small Illinois town on the Ohio River are endangered.

–Jerry Mead-Lucero

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