Honeywell Uranium Workers End Lockout, Accept Concessions

In a narrow vote on Tuesday, locked-out Steelworkers at the Metropolis, Illinois, uranium conversion plant accepted a contract containing a host of concessions sought by their employer for more than 13 months.

Though a vocal minority that had helped lead the fight against concessions urged rejection, in the end the economic hardships—a year on unemployment benefits and no health insurance—convinced a majority to end the fight.

Luckie Atkinson, one of the “road warriors” who traveled the country to build solidarity against their employer, Honeywell International, said, “I was sick about it.” Atkinson thought victory would have been possible if workers had held out but said Honeywell had created a “divide and conquer” situation.

Some activists posted photos of their “no” votes on their Facebook pages in an effort to embolden fellow workers. Local 7-669 is not releasing the vote count publicly.

The new contract will have a significantly inferior pension plan for new hires, which Atkinson fears could undermine union solidarity over time. Initially it appeared that the union had succeeded in defending seniority rights, but the company’s new definition of seniority eliminates most seniority protections, such as choice of job assignments.

Many jobs have been reclassified, meaning substantial pay cuts for many. Though the company backed down on some subcontracting plans, the new agreement includes the contracting out of several job categories and puts the maintenance department at risk.

Union members will need to pay much higher premiums for their health care. Even the issue most touted as a victory by the union has a downside. Retiree health care, the issue workers cited most often during the lockout as a top concern, has been protected for now. But language indicates it could be eliminated after the current contract expires in August 2014.

Indeed, new contract language indicates that workers could lose many of their benefits in January 2015, six months after contract expiration. A successful contract fight in 2014 thus becomes essential, with the threat of drastic concessions hanging over the union’s head if negotiations drag out.

Local members offered few explanations as to why confidence was high only a few weeks ago, when some were predicting victory.

Despite the grim concessions, activists can claim credit for the defense of retiree health care and current workers’ pensions. They have also introduced a fighting culture into the local, which had not engaged in a serious contract fight in decades. Now activists’ primary goal is to maintain unity within the local and carry on whatever fight they can inside the plant as they prepare themselves for a tough battle in three years’ time.