United Steelworkers, Honeywell Dispute Reaches Head Over Toxic Chemical Concerns

This post has been updated.

A tense labor dispute involving hundreds of union workers and a highly toxic chemical compound is coming to head this week in Metropolis, Illinois, a town perhaps best known as the home of Superman.

For the past eight months, union workers have been on lockout outside the gates of the Honeywell Specialty Materials plant in Metropolis. The plant is the only site in America where uranium is refined for eventual use in nuclear power plants.

The lockout began over a dispute between the United Steelworkers (USW) and Honeywell, when Honeywell proposed a series of moves that union officials say would essentially gut their organization. The cuts, according to an executive board member of the local union, included eliminating 40 (out of 230) union jobs, increasing out-of-pocket medical expenses, eliminating retiree health insurance, and removing worker seniority.

"If we accept what's on the table right now, we'd be crushed as a union," Darrel Lillie, president of the United Steelworkers local union told the AP last December.

The company's proposal to eat into the union workers' health insurance is particularly contentious because the substance produced at the plant, uranium hexafluoride (AKA UF6), is highly toxic. Union workers have erected 42 crosses in front of the Honeywell plant representing the employees who have died from cancer over the past 10 years. 27 smaller crosses symbolize the cancer survivors.

The company, meanwhile, rejects the claim that working at the facility is hazardous to employees health, according to the New York Times.

A report released by the Union titled "Communities at Risk," details what the organization sees as the health hazards posed by the lockout:

While a major release of just one chemical could kill or injure thousands of residents and cause irreparable environmental damage, the company has locked its gates and blocked longtime employees from entering their worksite as part of an irresponsible campaign to slash costs.

"In light of the community safety report, it is irresponsible for Honeywell to keep operating," Illinois State Rep. Phelps declared, said in a statement. "The warning signs were made clear in the report. It's not a question of if, but when a disaster will occur."

There has already been one leak of hydrofluoric acid last December. The Southern Illinoisan lays out the details of the fallout:

Several workers said a Dec. 22 leak of hydrofluoric acid at the plant likely could have been averted if the union workers were on the job -- a claim denied by Honeywell.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also said the leak was handled properly, and that a maintenance issue from 2008 may have contributed to it.

But state Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, agreed with the union workers, saying there is an unnecessary risk being placed on residents near the plant while the lockout continues.

On Monday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration attempted to inspect the plant, along with a USW international Health and Safety representative. Honeywell made it clear that a union representative was not welcome on the inspection tour by rejecting two different union members who volunteered.

The first representative was rejected on the grounds that he was not a current employee. When a second volunteer -- a currently locked out worker -- stepped forward, no explanation was offered.

The union has a legal right to send a member on the inspection tour, and OSHA is currently in the process of getting a court order, according to the union's media secretary John Paul Smith.

Honeywell released a statement claiming that because the locked out union workers were absent at the time of the December 22nd leak -- which prompted the inspection --they could offer no guidance to the OSHA team examining the plant:

The OSHA inspection is focused on the tank farm area where there was a leak on Dec. 22. At the time of the leak, we briefed both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and OSHA on what occured. It is not unusual after such incidents at any workplace for OSHA to follow up with an on-site inspection.

There were no union employees working at the time of the leak, so they do not have information about the leak, how it was handled at the time, or the actions the company has taken to help assure it does not happen again. Union employees are not permitted in the plant during the work stoppage in any event.

Employees who were working at the tank farm at the time of the leak, and who therefore have first-hand knowledge of what happened, will be available to the OSHA inspectors.

"Honeywell gave us no legitimate explanation for not giving us our legal right to accompany OSHA for this investigation," USW International Safety Representative, Michael Riley, said according to USW's Monday press release, "The real question is, What are they hiding in the plant that they do not want us to uncover?"

Last November, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that replacement workers brought in by Honeywell may have been supplied answers during a job evaluation test. Given the sensitive nature of the material employees handle, an unqualified worker could pose a significant health risk to himself and the community at large. However, when the NRC inspected the plant last year, it said there were no significant safety issues to report, according to the Southern Illinoisan.

According to Stephen Lech, the locked out worker (and member of the executive board of the local union) who was turned away on OSHA's second attempt to inspect Honeywell, the union has received tips from sources inside the plant that there might be unsafe actions going on.

"We know that they are operating the plant with less than qualified people," Lech said. "We know that they've had accidents. They've had leaks that are well documented. One occurence out there, that might be, 'okay look, this is a hazard of an industrial facility' but there's just too many things going on."

Negotiations between USW and Honeywell resumed on Monday and will continue for the next two days. At the union's most conservative estimate, the dispute has already cost Honeywell over $60 million.

In Lech's view, the Metropolis plant was targeted by Honeywell to serve as an example for other plants as they enter into future negotiations: "Well, it's not as effective given that they haven't won yet."

"I think we were chosen because we were rural and they had a poor impression of our intelligence," Lech said. "Honeywell has required a college education for its employees since before I was hired, but they still had this impression of us because we were rural."

Peter Dalpe, a spokesman for Honeywell, declined to comment on when the negotiations would wrap up. "We can't predict when the work stoppage may end as both sides have to come together on a negotiated settlement," he wrote in an email.

Lech, for his part, was optimistic that the dispute would be resolved soon, but he felt that the need for a thorough inspection was more pressing than ever.

"This OSHA inspection is not just a way of leveraging our position in this lockout. If something is going on in that plant that's unsafe it has to be fixed. If something is wrong, even if we were in there, we're going to see to it that it's going to be done right."

UPDATE: In an email, Honeywell spokesman Peter Dalpe writes that, in the company's view, the Metropolis plant is not being used as as example for other facilities. He stresses that the "the economic situation of this plant is that it has lost $100 million over the past 10 years."

Dalpe adds that the replacement workers were highly trained and "underwent a rigorous evaluation by the NRC." Additionally, the NRC's director issued a statement claiming that while "the NRC has identified some issues since the Honeywell plant resumed operations, our inspectors found those issues to be of low safety significance."

Lastly, he disagrees with the Union's estimate of the cost of the lockout for Honeywell, writing, "the union's statements on the cost of the temporary workforce have absolutely no basis in fact -- we have not shared this information with them, so they have simply invented a number." Dalpe declined to provide his own cost estimate, claiming this is proprietary and competitive information.