Elements of Victory Emerge as Uranium Lockout Nears End
After more than a year outside the gates, the lockout at the Honeywell uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Illinois, looks to end. Details of the July 19 settlement were scant.
Members will consider the deal this week and union leaders will take questions Monday. A vote could take place next week—unless members reject the deal outright.
“There’s going to be some wins and losses,” said Stephen Lech, executive board member of Steelworkers Local 7-669. “If we can walk back in there proud we took a stand, we’ve won.”
Their corporate campaign, aimed at shaming Honeywell and challenging its partners to spurn an abusive corporation, raised the stakes for the company. Management had already backed off some of its worst concession demands by June. And constant investigations by regulators—moved into action by the union’s activism—helped cut production, the union says.
Still, the strain on workers and community was evident. Signs around town declaring support for the 228 workers were less numerous than last year. Some members grew frustrated as the lockout wore on. A few were not excited about the rally held to mark the one-year anniversary June 25, unwilling to “celebrate” a situation that had made life so difficult.
At the same time, as the lockout dragged on, fears about an accident at this highly toxic facility grew. OSHA leveled 17 complaints against Honeywell for safety violations last month, while the company paid an $11.8 million fine in another case for illegally storing its toxic wastes.
The Honeywell plant is the only uranium conversion plant in the United States and one of just a handful globally. The plant takes milled uranium, known as yellowcake, and transforms it into uranium hexafluoride gas in a four-step process that involves some of the most dangerous chemicals that exist. Radiation poisoning and severe burns from hydrofluoric acid are constant worries.
Throughout, members were frustrated by the company’s success at gradually restarting production with scabs and the union’s inability to prevent it.
Seeing few means to disrupt production, the local’s “road warriors” traveled coast to coast to raise the stakes for Honeywell, which cleared $2 billion in profit last year.
At the shareholders meeting in April, Steelworkers were initially denied entry despite owning about 100,000 shares.
Company security were particularly incensed by member Steve Allan, who wore a Tyvek jumpsuit with the slogan “Honeywell Toxic for Workers” on the back. He explained it was Tyvek or his birthday suit, and after a heated exchange, 20 union members made it inside to observe the 15-minute-long affair.
They had the opportunity to vote on a 54 percent raise for CEO David Cote (bringing his total compensation to $20 million). Lech asked Cote if the raise was fair while 228 workers in Metropolis were locked out, making do on their unemployment benefits.
“I think it’s fair all the way around,” Cote replied.
Luckie Atkinson, one of the most active road warriors, asked why as an appointee to President Obama’s deficit commission, Cote prided himself as a job creator. The CEO refused to answer that one.
In the end, Cote’s raise passed by 99 percent. The workers’ shares were a drop in the bucket against the massive holdings of banks and hedge funds.
In April the local helped put the kibosh on a Honeywell proposal in Los Angeles. Immigrant rights activists were working against the bid of a Honeywell division in Arizona to manage a city wastewater treatment plant. Arizona businesses are under boycott because of the extreme anti-immigrant laws passed in that state last year.
The LA activists contacted Local 7-669, and Atkinson flew in to talk with city politicos and convince LA locals and labor bodies to call on the city to oppose the contract. Los Angeles put the $106 million contract on hold.
The Steelworkers even journeyed across the Atlantic to raise the lockout’s profile. Lech and member John Paul Smith traveled to Belgium and Germany to brief Honeywell workers on the company’s aggression toward its U.S. workforce.
European unions invited them to speak to the company’s continent-wide works council, a joint labor-management body.
Honeywell was so angered by the appearance of the locked-out workers it arranged to ban them from the hotel where the meeting was taking place. The European workers quickly arranged a nearby location to hear from their American brothers.
The visit did not result in shop floor actions from the Europeans, but their statements of solidarity raised Steelworker spirits. “That kind of solidarity, you can’t replace that, you can’t buy that and Honeywell can’t take it away,” Lech said.
HONEYWELL BACKS DOWN
Steelworkers say their campaign paid off in negotiations. The company abandoned its demand to eliminate retiree health coverage, one of the concessions most firmly opposed by the union.
Management also backed down on curtailing seniority rights and contracting out as much as 25 percent of the jobs.
But at the end the company was still insisting on raising workers’ health care costs and on ending pensions for new hires. The union figured new hires would receive only about $30,000 in a lump sum after 30 years of service. “Not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned,” Lech said.
The local recognized that two-tier benefits packages are a poison pill, warning that new hires would have no interest in defending the pension plan in the future and that the company would move to freeze the plan and then eliminate it entirely.
As the lockout dragged on, the danger of a poorly managed nuclear fuel plant became ever more apparent.
During the lockout the facility saw two accidents. Last September, shortly after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allowed the plant to return to full production with inexperienced scabs, the accidental mixing of hydrogen and fluorine touched off an explosion heard for a mile.
On December 22, an even more dangerous release of hydrogen fluoride gas activated the plant’s emergency response system.
By the company’s own admission, a substantial release could kill 125,000 people in a 25-mile radius. Luckily, neither accident resulted in any reported injuries. But the incidents caught the attention of regulators, prompted by repeated complaints from the union.
In March, Honeywell was fined $11.8 million by the EPA. The company’s “illegal storage practices put employees at risk of exposure to radioactive and hazardous materials,” said an EPA administrator. OSHA followed in June with citations for 17 serious safety violations and a $119,000 fine, after management had refused access to the facility several times. OSHA defines “serious” violations as situations with “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result.”
The union organized in the community to oppose Honeywell’s plans for dealing with its toxic waste dump. The company was mandated by the EPA to clean up 88,100 cubic yards of toxic sludge on its property.
Management recently announced its solution, which Atkinson described as “to cover up the site with dirt and grow flowers on it.” The union said that wasn’t enough and organized residents to demand that the company safely remove all contaminated material from the site.
Atkinson said it was yet more proof that Honeywell managers “really don’t care about the people in this community. If they were to have a catastrophic release of one of these tanks, that could kill almost everyone in my family.”
The Steelworkers’ multifaceted campaign seemed to have pushed Honeywell back from most concession demands. But was it enough to win the end game?
The workers were well aware that they had not been able to stop production, and a multinational corporation like Honeywell could make “one day longer” awfully hard on them.
Some members said they had contemplated civil disobedience, like blocking the plant gates, to try to halt production. But they felt such actions would not make much difference and the costs would be too high.
Hanging over the union’s head was an injunction issued last fall that strictly limited activity on the picket line. The judge threatened fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the smallest infractions.
Plus, Lech argued, civil disobedience was unlikely to stop production more than briefly. He said members also feared such actions might cost them public support.
Still, friendly sources inside the plant, and workers’ knowledge of what they should have seen coming in and out the gates, told them that the unskilled scabs didn’t produce at normal rates.
“They kept falling further and further behind with their orders,” said Local President Darrell Lillie, pegging production at no more than 40 percent despite Honeywell’s claims to the contrary. When the company can’t fill orders, it must purchase material from competitors in Canada and Asia.
Given that the plant falls under homeland security protections, interference with production could have brought charges against the union from the federal government. The union repeatedly tried to tell DHS head Janet Napolitano that the company’s nonchalant waste storage is the biggest national security threat on the premises.
Jerry Mead-Lucero is the host/producer of Labor Express Radio in Chicago. See laborexpress.org.