Holding the line against Honeywell

August 17, 2010

Adam Turl reports on a bitter labor battle taking place in Southern Illinois.

IN SOUTHERN Illinois, Metropolis--located near Fort Massac on the Ohio River--is most often known as the adopted hometown of Superman. The "man of steel" is even immortalized in a giant red and blue statue in the town's center, and celebrated in an annual "Superman Celebration."

Since June, however, Metropolis has become a symbol of Corporate America's war on working people.

The city is home to the Honeywell-owned Metropolis Works Plant--the only remaining uranium conversion plant in the U.S. The Metropolis facility produces uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which is used as fuel in nuclear power plants. UF6 is produced when "yellow cake" uranium ore is combined with hydrofluoric acid.

On June 28, 225 Metropolis uranium workers--represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-669--were locked out by management in the middle of contract negotiations, despite the fact the union offered to keep working under the old contract, which had expired on June 21. Since the lockout began, the union has taken to the picket lines around the clock--and Honeywell has imported 200 scabs from Louisiana.

Members and supporters of the United Steel Workers rally in support of locked-out workers in Metropolis, Ill.
Members and supporters of the United Steel Workers rally in support of locked-out workers in Metropolis, Ill. (USW Local 7-669)

The main point of contention is Honeywell's demand that employees accept big increases in their health-care costs and reductions in pensions. Workers--who make $62,000 to $68,000 a year with overtime--aren't seeking pay increases, but want to maintain pensions and retiree health care benefits.

The union has even offered to accept pay reductions in both bonuses and overtime. The company, however, has refused to budge and repeatedly walked out of negotiations.

HEALTH CARE is central because of the highly dangerous nature of the work. "We deal with hydrofluoric acid," USW Local 7-669 President Darrel Lillie told the New York Times. "We make fluorine. This is bad stuff. The least we feel like we could have is good medical benefits when we retire."

To underline the point, workers have erected 43 crosses near the plant--each one representing a coworker who has died of cancer. Another 27 crosses represent cancer survivors.

The Metropolis plant also has a long record of safety violations. Honeywell is under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Justice Department for its storage of toxic sludge. In 2003, an industrial accident produced a plume of uranium hexafluoride above Metropolis. Nearby homes were evacuated, and Honeywell was sued by the EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

What you can do

The union is asking supporters to contact company officials at the Metropolis plant and tell them to let the experienced and qualified members of USW Local 7-699 return to work.

Call plant manager Larry Smith at 618-524-6220 (office) or 847-312-7909 (cell), or e-mail him at [email protected]. Call Honeywell’s Specialty Materials Vice President Brett Able at 973-455-3832 (office) or 973-216-3194 (cell), or e-mail him at [email protected].

To contact the union, visit the USW Local 7-669 Web site.

NRC employees have told reporters they are concerned about "operational safety and radiological controls" in the plant--as well as chronic high turnover in plant management.

Radiation is a major issue. Workers wear radiation badges and are tested twice a month to check exposure levels. If their radiation exposure is above the legal limit--which happens not infrequently--workers are temporarily assigned other duties or ordered to stay home. A government program for victims of radiation exposure has paid out $15.2 million for medical costs and compensation for former Honeywell employees in Metropolis since 1959.

But radiation isn't the only hazard in the plant. Stephen Lech, a production worker, told reporters that he ended up in the hospital after being burned by hydrofluoric acid that seeped through his protective gear. "That's why we're fighting for health care," Lech said.

"We use a product called hydrofluoric acid," said Tim Goines, vice president of USW Local 7-669 argued. "It automatically goes to your bone, there's no way to stop it."

Of course, Honeywell pleads poverty, claiming to have lost $20 million this year in its Metropolis operations. But Honeywell increased its overall income 4 percent in the second quarter of 2010, beating Wall Street estimates. The company reported earnings of $468 million from April through June, and revenue increased 8 percent to $8.2 billion.

Moreover, the Metropolis plant, as the only uranium conversion plant in the U.S., is strategically vital for Honeywell's operations, playing a key role in the global supply chain for nuclear reactors. The plant is part of the company's Specialty Materials unit, which accounted for 13 percent of Honeywell's sales in 2009.

In fact, Honeywell may have provoked the lockout in hopes of seeing uranium prices rise, which would allow the company to make an even bigger profit later. Stock prices for uranium mining operators have shot up 25 percent in the past few weeks, and the price for converted uranium increased 10 percent in just the past month.

All this puts the lie to Honeywell's claims of poverty. Honeywell is raking in the cash. In order to increase those profits ever so slightly, the company is willing to put the health and wellbeing of its Metropolis employees at risk.

In the meantime, Honeywell is putting Metropolis and the surrounding area at risk by having inexperienced or long-retired "replacement workers" process uranium. Some 203 scabs from the Baton Rouge, La.-based Shaw Group are now working the production line. However, with only a minimum of training, these workers are far less qualified than the men and women walking the picket lines.

Thus, the community is worried about safety issues created by the scabs. Jerry Baird, a union supporter and owner of Diamond Lil's Restaurant in Metropolis, told reporters he was "nervous to be a neighbor of Honeywell. I feel my life's in danger here. They've got guys in there that have been in there no time at all."

"They brought these people in here with weeks of training," Joe Lee, an 18-year Honeywell veteran, told reporters. "It's bad for the community. Anything can happen."

AS THE lockout has continued, there has been an outpouring of solidarity and support from other unions, community members and local businesses. Metropolis is lined with signs in support of the workers. Even the Metropolis Dairy Queen and Quiznos are showing solidarity.

Of course, big business (and some local businesses) has worked with Honeywell against the union. Local 7-669 has posted an extensive list on its Web site. Included among the offenders are Home Depot, the Pear Tree Inn, Pepsi, Ryder Trucking and Sysco Food Service.

By any account, however, most working people in the area support the union.

On August 10, hundreds of workers and supporters marched through Metropolis to protest the lockout. Protesters came from Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana. The Southern Illinoisan reported marchers "were met with cheers from the public," and ABC-affiliate WSIL-TV 3 described downtown Metropolis as "a sea of United Steel Workers union supporters."

The union invited plant manager Larry Smith to address the marchers--but Smith didn't respond. Instead, the company mocked the rally as a waste of time and continued a campaign of disinformation. Honeywell has repeatedly exaggerated employee pay rates and falsely claimed the union started the lockout by "illegally" planning to strike.

People don't seem to be buying Honeywell's lies. Instead, they are rallying to the workers' cause. Unemployment in surrounding Massac County stood at 10.9 percent as of July. If these decent-paying jobs are gutted, things will only get worse in the area. So the workers at the Metropolis plant are holding the line for working people in the region and beyond.

"They're wanting us to take a contract that would absolutely destroy what men and women have fought for, for 50 years," Lille argued. "And we're not interested in doing any of that."

Further Reading

From the archives