On Tuesday, a slim majority of the members of Steelworkers Local 7-669 in Metropolis Illinois voted to ratify a new contract laden with major concessions. The union did win on some key issues including retiree health care, current workers pensions and overtime pay. But the hosts of concessions they agreed to will certainly be painful for the membership.
It has been a great pleasure to get to know the members of Local 7-669 over the past year. Working with the Local to tell their story has been a highlight of my many years of labor activism. In particular I have been inspired by Local 7-669 militants like Stephen Lech, John Paul Smith, Luckie Atkinson, Christian Musselman and others who where transformed by this experience over the past year. None were seasoned union activists when this fight started, but in the course of this experience they have become some of the most spirited and creative union militants I know. And I expect this is not the end to the fight in Metropolis. I will certainly been in touch with the local to follow their still unfolding saga.
I had not had a chance to post my full unedited version of the report I wrote after my visit to Metropolis on June 25th, so I post that here now. Following that are links to my most recent update on the situation which was published on Labor Notes’ website on Friday. Monday's episode of Labor Express Radio will carry a further update including an interview with Stephen Lech...
Return to MetropolisOn June 28th, the lockout of the 228 workers at the Honeywell uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Illinois entered its second year. A year is a long time to be locked-out. The strain on the workers and the community was evident as soon as I arrived in town. The signs declaring support for the locked-out members of Steelworkers Local 7-669 were less numerous than during my visit last September, though it appears that the community remains largely united behind the workers’ cause. My first conversation with Local 7-669 Executive Board member and leading activist Stephen Lech shortly after my arrival also revealed that even members of the Local are growing frustrated as the lockout wears on. “Monday’s union meeting was rough”, explained Lech. A few members of the Local questioned the reason for holding a rally the weekend before the one year mark, concerned that the event might be seen as a celebration of a situation that has made life very difficult for many. But there are small victories that members of Local 7-669 should feel proud to celebrate. The union’s corporate campaign has raised the stakes for the company and management has backed off some of its more egregious contract demands. As the lock-out drags on, the surrounding community’s fears about the danger of an accident at this highly toxic facility continue to grow.
The Road Warriors
The company’s efforts to gradually return to full production and the workers’ inability to prevent this, is at the heart of many Local member’s frustration with what they see as a lack of progress in resolving the lockout. Seeing few options to disrupt production locally, union activists have taken to the road, traveling from coast to coast in an effort to raise the stakes for Honeywell in a corporate campaign. The first stop was a visit to Honeywell corporate headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey for the company’s annual shareholders meeting in April. The union did not come with a specific shareholder resolution in mind, but hoped that the its presence at the meeting would both raise awareness among other shareholders of the situation in Metropolis and embarrass Honeywell CEO David Cote.
Most of the members of the Local are shareholders and with the combined holdings of the Steelworkers International, the workers own some roughly one hundred thousand shares of company stock. Despite this, company security did its best to deny the union members access to the meeting. They were particularly incensed by Local 7-669 member Steve Allan as he had come to the meeting wearing a Tyvek jump suit with the slogan “Honeywell - Toxic for Workers” painted on the back. When asked to remove it, he explained, “would you rather I wear this or nothing, there’s nothing else on underneath this thing.” Only when a Steelworkers International representative threatened to contact the Securities and Exchange Commission to inform them of the irregularities and call for a redo of the shareholders meeting, did security relent. In the end, the twenty or so union members in the meeting made up nearly half of the meeting’s entire attendance. Union members where virtually the only attendees to offer any questions during the meeting, which lasted less than 20 minutes.
Presented with the opportunity to vote on a 54% raise for Cote (bringing his total compensation up to $20 million), Stephen Lech came to the mike to ask Cote if it was fair that he receive a raise while 228 workers in Metropolis were locked out of their jobs. Cote replied, “I think it's fair all the way around.” For Luckie Atkinson, union member and one of the most active road warriors, it was proof that “he’s just a different type of person, people who are super rich have a different opinion than a working man. They think is all perfectly great that they get more money and they think its perfectly fair that they take away benefits from the working man, and woman, and retirees’ health care to give them more money.” Atkinson also asked why as an appointee to President Obama’s deficit commission, Cote prided himself as a job creator. “Is locking-out 228 workers creating jobs?” Cote refused to answer. It is not the first time Atkinson and Cote have sparred in public. When Cote showed up to the plant in Metropolis in 2008 to complain that the plant wasn’t profitable, Atkinson asked Cote if that wasn’t his own fault and whether he should be the one fired. When the time came, all the worker-shareholders voted against Cote’s raise. But in the end the resolution passed by over 99%. The workers’ hundred thousand shares were a mere drop in the bucket to the massive shares held by banks and other major investment entities, most of whom were not even present at the meeting.
Perhaps even more significant was the union’s efforts on the other side of the continent. In April the Local was contacted by immigrant rights activists in Los Angles who were working to oppose a bid by Honeywell to manage one of the city’s waste water treatment plants. The immigrant rights groups oppose the contract as it is being made by a Honeywell division in Arizona. Arizona-based businesses are being boycotted in response to the extreme anti-immigrant laws passed in that state last year. Javier Gonzalez of the California organization The Sound Strike, a coalition of artists that works to uphold the Arizona Boycott, started researching Honeywell when they became aware that their Arizona division was pursuing a contract with the City of Los Angeles. Javier contacted Local 7-669 when he learned of the lockout and encouraged the union to send representatives to Los Angeles to add their voice to those opposing the contract. In Los Angeles, Luckie Atkinson talked with the Mayor’s office, Eric Garcetti President of the Los Angeles City Council, and other members of the City Council. Atkinson also convinced Los Angeles union locals and labor bodies to call on the City to oppose the contract. So far the union’s efforts have brought success. The $106 million contract is on-hold, and union members have been told it is unlikely to move forward as long as the workers are locked-out.
The workers even journeyed across the Atlantic in an effort to raise the profile of the lockout and put pressure on the company. The Local was instrumental in organizing a “Honeywell Council” over the last several months, a body that brings together not only Honeywell workers from a variety of unions across the country, but even internationally. The Steelworkers feel that by communicating their experiences at Honeywell with other Honeywell workers at hundreds of facilities around the globe, all Honeywell workers will be better prepared when dealing with management. One of the first results of these efforts was an invitation to speak to the German and the European Honeywell Works Councils in May. Stephen Lech and John Paul Smith both traveled to Belgium and Germany to meet with workers from across Europe. Honeywell was so angered by Lech and Smith’s presence in Belgium that the company arranged to have them banned from the premises of the hotel where the European Honeywell Works Council met. But the European workers quickly arranged an event at a nearby location and all of the worker members of the Works Council attended.
The visit has not yet resulted in any shop floor or other types of direct actions on the part of European workers. But European unions who represent Honeywell workers, many of whom have contract negotiations coming later this year, have sent letters to David Cote expressing their solidarity with the workers in Metropolis. Communications are ongoing between Local 7-669 and the European unions. If nothing else, the statements of solidarity have helped raise the spirits of the Steelworkers. According to Stephen Lech, every letter the Local receives from Europe really inspires the members to keep fighting. “It was truly building international solidarity. That kind of solidarity, you can’t replace that, you can’t buy that and Honeywell can’t take it away. This small fight that Honeywell picked, now they’ve woken the sleeping dragon. Somewhere in an office in Honeywell’s corporate headquarters where they were looking at a best case scenario and a worst case scenario, we are going down the road now of the worst case scenario where all the workers are united. They are all in communication.”
Progress in Negotiations
The members of Local 7-669 feel their corporate campaign efforts have already paid off with significant progress in negotiations. The company has abandoned its plan to eliminate retiree health care coverage, one of the contract concessions most firmly opposed by the union. Management has also backed down on their demand that the union concede to the elimination of seniority rights. The company has backed off some of its efforts to contract out as much as 25% of the workforce, though some contracting out issues are still unresolved. Increases in health care premiums have not been eliminated, but have been reduced. Of the remaining issues in negotiations, the one that I heard most often mentioned by the workers was the company’s proposal to end defined benefit pensions for new employees. Instead new employees would be offered what the workers refer to as a “2% and out” plan or a defined equity plan. The company has backed off its demand that current workers give up their defined benefit pension plan, but if the company gets its way, new hires would receive a fraction of the retirement benefits that current workers receive. According to Stephen Lech, “we figured a worker would get about $30,000 in a lump sum at retirement after 30 years of service. Not acceptable, as far as I'm concerned.” The Local recognizes that two-tier benefits packages are a poison pill for an organized workplace. Another major stumbling block is how the company wants to pay overtime. Under the company’s plan, workers could be asked to work well over 8 hours, even as much as 16 hours without receiving time-and-a-half.
Ever Present Danger
While the lockout drags on, the danger to the entire community of a poorly managed, incredibly dangerous nuclear fuel/chemical plant becomes increasingly apparent. Their have been two accidents at the facility in the past year. On September 5th, shortly after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had allowed the plant to return to full production with the new, inexperienced replacement workers (as reported in my previous article in the October edition of Labor Notes), an explosion caused by the accidental mixing of hydrogen and fluorine by scabs in the plant resulted in an explosion that could be heard for a mile. On December 22nd, an even more dangerous release of hydrogen fluoride gas (HF) set off alarms at the facility and activated the plant’s emergency response system. According to Atkinson, by the company’s own admission, if there was a substantial release of HF at the plant, 125,000 people in 25 mile radius could be killed by the toxic gas. Luckily for the replacement workers in the plant, the locked-out workers on the picket line, and the thousands that live within close proximity to the facility, neither incident resulted in any reported injuries and the environmental contaminants were allegedly contained within company grounds. But the deficient practices at the plant that led to these incidents have caught regulators’ attention.
In November, Honeywell was cited by the NRC for illegally coaching and assisting its replacement workers on the exams that had convinced the NRC to allow the plant to resume full production in September. In March, Honeywell pleaded guilty in federal district court to knowingly storing hazardous radioactive waste improperly at the Metropolis site without the required permit, and paid $11.8 million in fines. According to Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, Honeywell’s “illegal storage practices put employees at risk of exposure to radioactive and hazardous materials.” On June 22, OSHA cited Honeywell with 17 serious safety violations and issued the company a $119,000 fine. OSHA defines “serious” violations as situations with “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result.” The OSHA fine came after Honeywell management had refused OSHA access to the Metropolis facility on several occasions over the past year.
In addition, the union has organized in the community to oppose Honeywell’s plan to cover over a toxic waste site on the property with dirt. By law Honeywell was mandated to clean up the toxic waste dump by 2020. The company recently announced that their solution is simply, in Atkinson’s words “to cover up the site with dirt and grow flowers on it.” The union doesn’t think that’s is enough and has organized people to oppose the plan. The union has highlighted some of these concerns in a report they released in January entitled “Communities at Risk”, which is available on the Local’s website, usw7-669.com. As far as Atkinson is concerned, all of this is just proof that Honeywell’s management “really don’t care about the people in this community. This community is where I was born and raised for 48 years and 80% of my family live here. Most of my family live right near Metropolis. So if they were to have a catastrophic release of one of these tanks, that could potentially kill almost everyone in my family.”
Despite the apparent success of the corporate campaign, the question that remains is whether it is enough to force Honeywell to abandon its demands for serious concessions. The workers are well aware that they have not been able to stop production. A multi-billion dollar corporation like Honeywell can make that “one day longer” an awful hard goal to achieve. Some of the members of the Local I talked with said they have contemplated forms of civil disobedience like blocking the plant gates to try to halt production, but they feel the costs of such actions would be too high and would not make much difference. Hanging over the union’s head is an injunction issued last fall which provides strict requirements and limitations to the union’s activity on the picket line. The judge who issued the injunction has threatened fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars for even the smallest infractions. Fines of that amount would completely decimate the Local’s treasury. “The International would bail us out no question,” says Stephen Lech “but it wouldn’t accomplish anything anyhow.” Given that the facility falls under special Department of Homeland Security protections, interference with production could result in charges brought against the union from the federal government. This despite the fact that it is the union that has repeatedly contacted Janet Napolitano to point out that the company’s methods of storage of hazardous waste are the biggest national security threat on the premises. They also fear that such actions might cost them public support they feel has been key in their struggle. And they argue that even acts of civil disobedience are unlikely to stop production for more than short periods of time. Besides, according to Local President Darrell Lillie, despite the company’s claims to the contrary, “production can’t be more than 40% currently.” Friendly sources inside the plant, and the workers own knowledge of what they should see coming in and out of the plant gates, tell them that the unskilled scabs still can’t produce the quantities of product that skilled workers are able to produce. “They keep falling further and further behind with their orders,” states Lillie. The constant investigations by the EPA, OSHA and the NRC have also contributed to reduced production. Lillie thinks this may be just as important a reason as the corporate campaign for the company’s willingness to concede on some of their demands at the negotiating table.
The union’s strategy is to continue to go after similar contracts with local and state governments around the country as they did in Los Angeles. They also continue to work with regulators like the NRC, EPA and OSHA to bring maximum pressure to bear on a company that they feel is being dangerously mismanaged by their replacements. And they will continue to pursue CEO Cote around the country and even around the world. In Lillie’s words “We want Cote to think of us every morning when he wakes up and every night before he goes to bed and all day long.” “We have already won on some of the stuff that most concerned us in the contract, and I am confident we are going to win this thing. I think will be back in before the fall,” argues Lech, whose militant optimism is infectious. Despite the strains that the lock out has clearly brought on members of the Local, for now that optimism seems to continue to inspire Local 7-669 to continue the fight. “We haven’t put together a celebration rally because we don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to be one heck of a party.”