Sunday, July 3, 2011

Return to Metropolis...

I traveled down to the far southern tip of Illinois last weekend to participate in a rally marking 1 year since members of Steel workers local 7-669 have been locked out at the Honeywell uranium conversion plant. Tomorrow's episode of Labor Express Radio will be part 1 of a multi-episode update on the lock-out. Next month's edition of Labor Notes will also include an article on recent developments in the lock-out. As a teaser and to provide some context for those not aware of the situation, I thought I would post the full version of my reflections on my visit to Metropolis last September. This piece was edit for publication in Labor Notes October edition and in the November edition of News and Letters, but I have not previously posted the full version...

The Men of Steel Locked-Out in the Home of the Man of Steel

Metropolis - Labor Land:

As you approach the tiny town of Metropolis it is abundantly clear, as much as 25 miles out, that this is union friendly territory. It’s at that point that you begin to see the lawn signs declaring “Proud Supporter of USW Local 7-669”. The signs only become more numerous the closer you get to town, competing with and perhaps even outnumbering the signs supporting this or that candidate for county sheriff. It is perhaps not surprising given 3 of the 4 major employers in town are union, the only non-union facility being the lowest paid place to work around, the Harrah’s Riverboat Casino. Much of the rest of the workforce outside of these 4 major employers are union construction workers, carpenters, plumbers, pipe fitters and other members of the trades. Metropolis is without a doubt a blue collar town.

Metropolis is known by the few tourist that pass thorough as the place with the larger than life Superman statue outside city hall. In the 1970’s, town officials hoped to build a Superman themed amusement park in town. In the end the only thing that ever came of those plans was the statue. But the 6,000 plus residents of Metropolis know well that their town should be more famous for the Honeywell International Inc. plant that sits right on the outskirts of town. The Honeywell plant is the only uranium conversion plant in the United States and one of just a handful around the entire globe. The plant produces UF6 a fuel used to power nuclear power plants around the world. The milled uranium product that comes from the mines, know as yellow cake, is transformed at Honeywell in to UF6 gas in a 4 step process that involves some of the most dangerous chemicals know to man. It is not kryptonite that the workers at Honeywell and the residents of the town need fear, instead its radiation poisoning and sever burns from hydrofluoric acid, a major component of the production process.

Given the toxic substances they deal with on a daily bases, it is not surprising that some 42 workers have died of various cancers and another 27 have contracted a form of cancer in recent years. The federal government has recognized the dangers of working in this industry with the establishment of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, which provides funds to help effected workers deal with their health care costs. A number of workers told me when they first came to work at Honeywell they were warned that this job could take 10 years off their lives, though Honeywell publicly denies there is any connection between their production process and the aliments suffered by the workers. A few workers have received server hydrofluoric acid burns while working at the plant, including Bill Klinghammer, a former president of the Local who received burns to his face that required hospitalization and left scars. For this reason, it is not surprising that workers balked when Honeywell management demanded the elimination of retire health care and increases in premiums, co-pays and deductibles that would have cost current employee’s thousands of dollars a year during contract negotiations which began late last Spring.

Contentious Contract Negotiations:

Retired members of Steelworkers Local 7-669 will tell you that in previous years, relations between the workers and management had generally been positive. The last major labor dispute at the plant dates back to 1974 when the workers struck and won substantial improvements in their contracts which continued over the next couple decades. Workers noticed a marked change in the demeanor of management in recent years. The 2007 contract negotiations were more contentious than in the past. But as the June 2010 contract expiration date loomed, it became clear that management was going to take a harder-line against the plants workforce than ever before.

Honeywell’s last and final offer asked the workers to except a practical elimination of the current seniority system. Management demanded the right to contract out as many as 54 jobs in the plant, nearly a quarter of the current workforce and potential eliminating the entire maintenance department. The proposal included the replacement of the worker’s defined benefit pension plan with a lump sum payment plan that workers figured would amount to less than $60,000 after 30 years of service. But perhaps most concerning of all, was the proposal to substantial increase worker’s health care premiums, co-pays and deductibles by thousands of dollars annually and the complete elimination of retire health care. Interestingly, the wage proposal the company offered was 3% higher than what the union had asked for. The Union had actually agreed to a wage freeze over the life of the contract. According to Darrell Lillie, President of Steelworkers Local 7-669, “It was a contract we just couldn’t accept…and they knew we couldn’t accept it.”

The workers increasingly sensed that Honeywell wanted the union to strike. But the negotiating team, while publicly doing everything they could to make it look to the company that a strike was possible, was leery of taking such action. A strike at USEC in 2003, a nuclear power plant across the river in Paducah Kentucky, which purchases product from Honeywell, had lasted 5 months with minimal gains in the eventual contract. And everyone in Metropolis remembers the Missouri Portland Cement Co. strike of 1984 in nearby Joppa, Illinois which ended in violence and all the workers losing their jobs. Perhaps even more importantly, as retiree Doc Greer explains, it is not like 1974. “In the 70’s jobs were plentiful…now days there not.” 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. Negotiations continued for seven more days with no movement and on June 28th, the company took a move the workers had not fully expected, the company locked-out its union workforce.

Using a Lock-out to Play the Market:

Though the lock-out came as something of a shock, it wasn’t whole unexpected. The company had already brought in possible replacement workers hired by the Shaw Group, weeks before the lock-out, to observe how the workers performed their jobs. As soon as the company locked-out the Steelworkers, they brought in over 200 Shaw replacements. Given fears that the scab workers would not be welcome in town, a likelihood confirmed in my conversations with local business owners, they are bussed in every day from where they are housed, some 40 miles away at an old lake side resort that had all been shut down until its was transformed into what the union workers call “scab city”. The replacement workers are offered catered meals at work and at the resort, so they can avoid all contact with the angry residents of Metropolis.

Members of the union tried to calculate the costs the company was racking up in housing, feeding and bussing replacement workers into the plant, who were reportedly receiving wages substantial in excess of what the union workers normally receive. There were the costs of the new security personnel that the company hired to surveil workers on the picket line. And management was also paying salaried employees for extra time, as much as 80 hours a week, to keep the plant minimally functional. Despite all this, because the replacement workers lacked the specialized training necessary to operate a nuclear fuel processing plant safely, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had prevented the company from performing the final two steps of the production process, meaning the plant was unable to produce any 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 lock-out. But than they developed a theory.

Members of the local began researching the company’s contracts with their customers. In reviewing these contracts they discovered a “force majeure” clause in the contracts which included a strike or lock-out as a cause that could allow Honeywell to break the contracts. According to the union, many of the long-term contracts the company was obligated to fulfill had locked in a price of $5 to $6 per Kilogram, while the current market price for UF6 is closer to $11 or $12 per Kilogram. Could Honeywell be using the lock-out to void its low price contracts in order to demand a higher price once the labor dispute ended? Members of the union have communicated with a reporter for the industry publication Uranium Intelligence Weekly who they claim has confirmed that their theory has plausibility. The reporter has not been available for comment on this story.

A Town Terrified:

Meanwhile the residents of Metropolis are living in fear. The toxic substances processed at Honeywell are a danger not only to Honeywell’s workforce but to the entire town and even the region. Doc Greer, a retired Honeywell worker and former president of the local told me that when he was asked by the company to attend a meeting at which the dangers of a release of hydrofluoric acid (HF) was discussed that he was told… “if they lost a whole HF tank…you would actually wipe out the whole city of Metropolis” and “for 25 miles actually people would have trouble breathing.” “And you could smell HF for a hundred miles...from here to Clarksville Tennessee or nearly to St. Louis…you’d be able to smell HF.” Fear for the safety of the town is not unwarranted. Twice in the past, once in the 1960’s and again in December of 2003, their have been accidentally releases of HF at the plant. In the 2003 incident, 75 homes had to be evacuated and hundreds more were instructed to “shelter in place” which means to shut all windows and turn off any climate control systems that might bring outside air into the home. Honeywell is currently being investigated by the EPA over problems with the company’s handling of toxic sludge, a waste product of the production process.

In my conversations with area residents the fear of a major accident at the plant, now staffed with replacement workers with little experience or training in running the facility, was foremost on their minds. According to Jerry Baird, the owner of Diamond Lil’s, a nearby diner…. “…they need to get the trained professional union men back in there so this community can be safe…I think it is very important that anybody that fools with chemicals, uranium, or any type of chemical of that nature needs to be professionally trained and these guys are not that’s in there now.” Greg Henry worked for a short time at the plant before becoming the owner of L & W Tire and Exhaust. He knows from the time he worked that “…you need trained people in there to run that place, you really do, because it could be very dangerous.”

The town’s fears were nearly realized the Sunday before Labor Day. The NRC had decided to reverse its position on limiting the company too the first two steps of the production process. On Saturday Sept. 5th, the company attempted to resume full production. But on Sunday afternoon the ground shook under the feet of the workers on the picket line as a loud boom was heard for miles around. Conversations between workers on line and NRC officials later in the day confirmed exactly what the workers expected, that in their attempts to bring the plant back on-line, the company had not been careful about moisture collected in the equipment in the fluorine plant and as a result they blew up one of the fluorine scrubbers. A Honeywell press release called the incident “a noise” and nothing to worry about. But the state police were called to the scene after a flood of 911 calls came in reporting an explosion. Luckily there were no reported injuries or releases of toxic gas in this case.

Preparing for a Fight:

The lock-out may have been a bit of a surprise to Local 7-669 and the negotiating team may have wanted to avoid a strike, but the union was preparing for the possibility of a labor action for months prior to the lock-out. A key element of these preparations was the creation of Contract Action Teams. The Steelworkers International trained ten of the local’s members in how to build solidarity and prepare the local’s membership for a worst case scenario through the “Building Power Program.” The Contract Action Team or CAT team was quick to act when the company’s propaganda effort picked up as negotiations wore on. Management begin distributing in the plant “fact sheets” entitled “Just the Facts”. The content of these flyers attempt to convince workers that they were overpaid, had unaffordable benefits and that they had to accept concessions if the wished to keep their jobs. Almost immediately the union countered this effort with their own “Just Some More Facts” which was styled to be nearly identical to the flyers distributed by the company. Stephen Lech, one of the members of the CAT team explained that “they looked so much a like that even the managers would get confused about which one was which”. But the union’s fact sheets demolished the arguments put forward in “Just the Facts.” For instance “they had pointed that their health care expenses had doubled in ten years… we realized that our portion had tripled in the same amount time. And so we started to point facts like that out on these documents…there were foremen that were trying to figure out where these where coming from because most of the time the same day they put those out we were prepared with 250 copies of our own…and we wanted management to see these.”

At one point Honeywell attempted to create dissension within the families of union members. A mailing went out addressed to the family members of employees arguing that the union members were being unreasonable and that they needed to make concessions or potentially loss their jobs. The union countered once again sending out a mailing along with the actual contract proposal that explained in detail why the union could not accept the contract. The mailing included a self addressed, stamped postcard addressed to plant manager Larry Smith asking that their household be removed from the company’s mailing list. Within days, postcards were flooding into Smith’s office. After the lock-out had begun, members of the union went on the offensive. They sent out their own mailing to all the neighbors of a number of the plants top managers informing their neighbors of the hardship that these managers were attempting to impose on the workers at Honeywell.

The local also made other preparations like stocking a food pantry and stocking up on school supplies and baby care items for the handful of expectant mothers among the worker’s families. These preparations not only served to offer relief in the event of a labor action, but sent a psychological message to management that the local was not going to give-up without a fight. One of the membership, Rachel Spence, even established a support group for spouses of the workers to help deal with the potential strain a strike or lock-out might have on the member’s families. But according to many of the workers I talked to, the advice and training offered by the International had the most impact on how the negotiating committee operates. In the past, the committee carried out negotiations largely behind closed doors, only consulting with the membership when they had reached an agreement with management. According to Darrell Lillie, “now everything is done out in the open.” Their seems to be near unanimous agreement among the workers that this has been a key element of their strong sense of solidarity and willingness to carry out this fight as long as necessary.

Stephen Lech has also referred to the Troublemakers Hand Book as an indispensable resource in helping the local prepare for what the company might through at them and how to counter attack. In particular, it helped make Lech wary of attempts by the company to push a two-tiered wage and benefit structures or pit current employees against retires.

A Waiting Game:

Given the Local’s theory that the company’s primary reason for the lock-out is the force majeure clause of their contracts with their customers, many of the workers hope that the 90 days required by the clause being meet by the end of September, that the next negotiation session, scheduled for Oct. 11th will result in some movement in negotiations. Regardless, the Local say’s they will continue this fight as long as it takes. The workers seemed convinced that the given the uniqueness of their specialized skills and experience that the company will find it ultimately impossible to replace them permanently. And federal labor law forbids permanent replacements in the case of a lock-out. But as the conflict wears on, the company is slowly bringing production back online. As of Friday, Sept. 10th, the company 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 is endangered.

For pictures from my visit last September, see the following link...

For pictures from my visit last weekend, see the following link...

For the version of this report that appeared in the October edition of Labor Notes, see the following link...

For the version of this report that appeared in the November edition of News and Letters, see the following link...

No comments:

Post a Comment