Locked Out at Illinois Uranium Processing Plant, Steelworkers and Community Wait, Nervously
Approaching the tiny town of Metropolis, Illinois, it is abundantly clear this is union-friendly territory.
As much as 25 miles away from this burg of 6,000 on the Kentucky border, lawn signs declaring “Proud Supporter of USW Local 7-669” start to appear, and become more numerous closer to town. Three of the four major employers in town are union, and much of the rest are firms employing union carpenters, pipefitters, and other members of the trades. Metropolis is a blue-collar town.
The yard signs have grown over the summer, since 220 Steelworkers who produce fuel for nuclear power plants were locked out June 28 by the multinational Honeywell corporation. Their dangerous, specialized work is now being done by scabs with scant training, who locked-out members and neighbors fear could make a fatal error.
Already, an explosion at the plant September 5 created a boom heard miles around as replacements attempted to restart production. The ground shook under the feet of workers on the picket line. Worried calls flooded in to 911 operators, but a Honeywell press release called the incident “a noise” and nothing to worry about. There were no reported injuries or releases of toxic gas.
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 yellow cake, 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.
Given the toxic substances they deal with daily, it’s not surprising that 27 workers have a cancer diagnosis, and about 42 have died of various cancers over the past 20 years. Part of the lore of the plant, workers say, is to expect that the job could take 10 years off their lives. Honeywell denies any connection between the production process and workers’ ailments.
So it’s no surprise that workers balked when, during contract talks this spring, Honeywell demanded the elimination of retiree health care and big increases in current workers’ health costs.
FIRST FIGHT SINCE ’74
The Metropolis plant has been quiet for decades: the last major dispute was in 1974, when workers struck and won substantial improvements.
But this year Honeywell demanded that workers essentially eliminate seniority and the maintenance department and let the company contract out nearly a quarter of their jobs.
The defined-benefit pension plan would disappear, in exchange for a lump sum that workers figured would be less than $60,000 after 30 years of service. Oddly, the company proposed a 3 percent raise though the union had offered a wage freeze.
But most concerning of all was the proposal to dump retirees’ health care and make active workers pay co-pays, deductibles, and premiums that would have cost them thousands of dollars a year.
“It was a contract we just couldn’t accept,” said Darrell Lillie, Local 7-669 president. “And they knew we couldn’t accept it.”
The workers sensed that Honeywell wanted them to strike. But the negotiating team, while jousting publicly with the company, was leery. Everyone in Metropolis remembers the Missouri Portland Cement strike of 1984 in nearby Joppa, Illinois, which ended in violence and all the workers losing their jobs. A difficult five-month strike in 2003 at a nuclear power plant across the river also weighed on them.
When the union said members would keep working past contract expiration, managers seemed frustrated. A week later the company kicked the workers out.
The lockout wasn’t wholly unexpected. The company had brought in contract laborers weeks before to observe how workers performed their jobs. As soon as the lockout was on, 200 replacements went in. (Locked-out workers cannot be permanently replaced.)
Scabs are bused in every day from 40 miles away, where they’re housed at a former lakeside resort now transformed into what union members call “scab city.” Replacements are offered catered meals at work and the resort so they can avoid all contact with the angry residents of Metropolis.
Seething, members try to calculate the costs Honeywell is racking up, between the security guards videotaping them, $50 an hour overtime for salaried employees pulling 80-hour weeks, and the scabs, who make more than union members. They reportedly receive a $100 per diem as well as $15 to $32 an hour.
Initially, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission barred Honeywell from performing the final two steps of production on safety grounds, leaving the plant unable to produce saleable product over the summer. The plant had 70-80 cylinders stockpiled and normally ships nine per day. Why was the company willing to suffer such expense when production was choked off, USW members wondered?
Searching Honeywell’s contracts with its customers, they discovered a clause that allows Honeywell to break the deal in the event of a strike or lockout. According to the union, many of the company’s long-term contracts locked in a price of $5 to $6 per kilogram, while the current market price is closer to $11 or $12.
Honeywell, they decided, created the lockout in order to void low-price contracts and demand higher prices.
A TOWN TERRIFIED
Meanwhile, the residents of Metropolis are living in fear. Doc Greer, a Honeywell retiree, said a major accident “would actually wipe out” Metropolis and drift toxic gas a hundred miles, nearly to St. Louis.
Their fears aren’t unwarranted. Once in the 1960s and again in 2003, toxic gases were accidentally released from the plant. After the earlier incident, all houses within a half mile of the plant were removed. In the 2003 incident, 75 homes had to be evacuated and residents of hundreds more were instructed to stay home and turn off air-conditioning systems bringing in outside air.
The town’s fears were nearly realized on September 5. After regulators reversed their position and let the company try to resume full production, one of the fluorine scrubbers blew up.
“We were accused by Honeywell of overstating the safety concerns,” said Stephen Lech, an activist at the plant. “But we are not making perfume. If we have a problem, the damage is irreversible to the community.”
Local 7-669 had prepared for action months ahead. A key element was creating a Contract Action Team, a 10-member squad that then trained others to cohere the workforce and counteract the company’s propaganda.
Sure enough, management began distributing “Just the Facts” flyers, attempting to convince workers they were overpaid, had unaffordable benefits, and must take concessions if they wanted to keep their jobs.
Almost immediately the union countered with “Just Some More Facts,” styled to look nearly identical. Lech, an action-team member, said they pointed out that while health care costs had doubled in 10 years, the portion workers pay had tripled.
Honeywell sent materials to workers’ family members arguing the union was being unreasonable. The local mailed the actual contract proposal, explaining in detail why members could not accept it. The mailing included a postcard addressed to the plant manager asking to be taken off the company’s mailing list. Within days, postcards flooded his office.
The local also stocked a food pantry, school supplies, and baby care items, sending a message that it was ready for a fight. One member, Rachel Spence, established a support group for spouses to help deal with the strain a prolonged action would have on families.
Lillie, the local president, said the USW International helped by convincing the negotiating committee to bring bargaining “out in the open.” In the past, negotiations had stayed largely behind closed doors.
If the local is correct that Honeywell created the lockout to renegotiate with its customers, then bargaining could start moving in the next session, October 11. The 90 days required for Honeywell to void its contracts will be reached by September’s end.
Regardless, the local says it’s willing to fight as long as it takes. Workers are convinced their specialized skills and unique experience will make the company want them back eventually.
But on September 10 regulators judged the replacement workers competent enough to operate the plant. As the conflict wears on, the company is slowly restarting production of one of the most dangerous substances ever to exist on the planet.
To support the Honeywell workers and the residents of Metropolis, contact the NRC at 800-695-7403 and express your concerns over plant safety. And write to President Obama’s Deficit Commission (commission [at] fc [dot] eop [dot] gov) and urge the removal of Honeywell CEO David Cote, who is seeking to cut Social Security at the same time he wants to slash his workers’ pensions.