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One-Year Mark: Negotiations Continue Between Honeywell and United Steelworkers

A plastic rat outside the Honeywell Metropolis plant entrance.

By Angela Hatton

Metropolis, IL – This week marks the one-year anniversary of when Honeywell Corporation in Metropolis and the United Steelworkers Local 7-669 union came to a head over their contract renewal. The current contract was expired and no settlement was in site. The company refused to allow USW to continue working at the nuclear fuel plant without a new contract. The union called it a lockout. The company called it a work stoppage. The two sides have been locked in a battle of wills ever since. Negotiators claim to have nearly reached an agreement on the union's new three-year contract, with only the issue of overtime pay left to resolve. But as Angela Hatton reports, there's still no fixed date for when Honeywell's 228 union workers can come back on the job.

A few USW members sit on camp chairs underneath a tent outside the entrance to Honeywell in Metropolis. A supply of water and snacks are nearby. Pro-union signs lay on the ground, which has turned to a muddy soup from the months of picket lines. Plastic rats hang from poles. The rats represent what the union calls "scabs," temporary workers who have been running the plant operations in place of the union employees. Darrell Lillie is president of the local USW. He says it's been a tough year.

"It's hard to keep the whole body's morale up, because after a year's not working and, and y'know, not seeing anything transpire as far as going back to work it's hard to keep the morale. So I gotta say, the morale's down."

Lillie says a one-year anniversary rally last week that drew in USW members from all over the country was a boost to the local workers.

Though it's now lasted for over a year, the Honeywell labor dispute is relatively short. For example, a work stoppage at a hotel in Nevada began in 1991 and dragged on for 6 and a half years. Historically, unions were a response to the need for better working conditions in industry. But labor experts have noticed a decline in union membership over the past quarter century. Don Robertson is assistant professor of business at Murray State University.

"One: a lot of the issues dealing around safety, there has been a lot of legislation that is in place now that is dealing with that."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees operations at Honeywell, and sends inspectors annually. But USW Member John Paul Smith believes it's important to have union workers on staff because they're the day to day safety watchdogs.

"It's a lot like when you take a test for your driver's license. Obviously when you're being tested and the person's sitting there right next to you, you're going to do your best to do everything the right way. It's the same thing with that plant. Obviously when the regulators are in there, the company's going to try their best to do everything the right way, but when the regulators aren't there, sometimes they try to do it the fast way instead of the right way."

He says the strength of a union gives workers the ability to speak out against a company, while non-union workers don't have that power. Smith has worked at the plant for seven years, including this year of lockout.

"My dad worked for General Motors in the 70s, a union job. My mom is a instructor now at Shawnee Community College, and part of the teacher's union there. What the union stands for is basic rights, I think that workers should have. If you've been at a job longer, you deserve, uh, some benefits that maybe the guy showing up tomorrow has to earn still."

Murray State University Professor of Economics Martin Milkman says unions may be maligned from a business standpoint because workers in a union get paid more. Milkman says because their wages are secured no matter what, union workers may lack incentive to put in effort. Milkman says some union employees do work hard.

"But in either case, it's clear that they get paid more than non-union workers. Therefore, even if they increase productivity, they probably don't increase it enough that the profits are maintained or increased."

Because of ongoing contract negotiations, Honeywell officials declined to be interviewed over the phone for this story. Plant Manager Larry Smith answered questions via email. He says the plant has been running well since the work stoppage. He says, "Over the past 10 months, production has increased about 24 percent over the same period a year earlier. This improvement is attributable to improved processes and procedures, as well as the flexibility and teamwork of our temporary workers."

Larry Smith also feels good about safety. He says "We've made a lot of investments at the plant over the past year and we've done a lot to improve work processes and procedures."

However, a recent OSHA survey found 17 serious safety violations at the facility, mainly related to poor procedure surrounding a release of hydrogen vapor in December. A company investigation found the cause was a faulty valve.

Milkman says the general view across the country is favorable towards unions, but that's not true in the south because of "right-to-work laws." Milkman says southern states don't mandate that every employee of a company join the local union.

"So, it's very difficult for unions, number one to organize workers in the south. And number two is even if they do tend to organize workers in the south, like this plant in southern Illinois, not everyone will necessarily want to pay dues."

Local 7-669 President Darrell Lillie says between 20 and 25 union members have dropped out of the bargaining fight. They've found other jobs, and some say they won't be coming back when a contract is reached. It's been a month since the last bargaining session, and Lillie says the two sides are very close to a settlement, though he can't disclose bargaining details. When asked how the time on lockout will affect the working relationship between Honeywell and USW, Lillie says it's just business.

"Still have to have the communications and relationship with the company. Because that's the only way you're going to get problems, and solved and stuff like that. So on my part of it, when we go back in , y'know, we're going to have to sit down, we're going to have to talk about issues that come up, and we're going to have to fix the issues."

Honeywell corporation spokesman Peter Dalpe says in a statement that the company "has a long, successful history of working with unions and works councils around the world, including the Steelworkers." Company officials say they are prepared to retrain and transition back to their hourly workers.

Murray State's Don Robertson says academics go back and forth on whether unions have a future in the United States. He says recent debate swings toward unions.
"The future of the unions could be very positive right now because of the benefits, the healthcare costs, and those sort of issues, that are more prevalent at a bargaining. On the other hands, there are those that will argue that unions are why some industries says the United States and going elsewhere because it's less costly."

Future operations have been a big concern for the company throughout the negotiations. Honeywell officials say they've posted losses of 100-million dollars in the past decade. Dalpe says, "with the right contract and the right investments the plant can reverse past operating losses and be competitive on a sustainable basis."

Darrell Lillie says he wants to ensure that the younger union workers and the employees Honeywell hires in the future get a fair deal on wages and retirement.
"It's a David and Goliath fight. We're a 228 member local fighting a multi-billion dollar corporation. Think we've done pretty good."

He says USW is willing to continue to push its issues for as long as it takes.