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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Mar 27, 2012, 1:55 pm

NLRB Investigates Claims of Post-Lockout Union-Busting at Honeywell Plant

BY Mike Elk

Last Wednesday, a National Labor Relations Board agent arrived in Metropolis, Ill., to investigate unfair labor practices charges made by uranium workers who work at a Honeywell International facility there. The workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 7-669 who went back to work for the multinational energy and security company last August after a long lockout, charge that the company has sought to illegally limit the union's power and failed to follow the terms of their new three-year contract.   

On the USW local's website, union members claim that Honeywell has attempted to limit their free speech about workplace conditions and has forbidden workers from talking to other workers about safety problems. They also say the company has violated the new contract by failing to comply with the grievance procedure and laying off union members before laying off nonunion contractors hired during the lockout. And the union claims Honeywell has engaged in a campaign to fire key union members.  

The first charge—that the company has threatened workers over anti-management information on the union's website—is the most contentious. On one occasion, the union posted that Honeywell paid for $65,000 worth of landscaping done at the house of the plant manager Larry Smith. “Who can count all the times that Lying Larry told us, 'Containing costs is everyone's responsibility'? Apparently, all the unionbusting initiatives and deceit has paid off.  Honeywell received and paid the invoice for Larry's $65,000 landscaping job,” members of Local 7-699 wrote on their website. 

Union local members claim that Honeywell management asked who wrote the posts, and voiced disapproval of them. The union refused to give any names. 

On another occasion, the union wrote on its website that several workers complained to the company that facility maintenance manager Tommy Barnes called an African-American supervisor the "n-word,” but the company did nothing about it. The union was then contacted by a corporate investigator who demanded to know the name of the person who had been posting about the racial slur allegedly used by a supervisor and the alleged landscaping payment. The union once again refused to give up the names of the people who were posting on the website.

According to Local 7-669 spokeman Stephen Lech, Derek Bartholomew, human resource manager for the Metropolis plant, called in Local President Darrell Lillie and Vice President Tim Goines and threatened to fire both of them if they did not reveal who was writing on the website. Eventually, the company backed down from such threats after African-American union members complained about the lack of action being taken against the supervisor, union officials say.

Honeywell did not return requests for comments for this story.

One of the charges the NLRB is investigating pertains to whether Honeywell violated the National Labor Relations Act by forcing employees to keep quiet about safety hazards. Last month, four different employees complained about a fire safety hazard in the uranium plant. The workers were soon forced by Honeywell management to sign documents forbidding them from speaking about these hazards to other employees, according to Local 7-669.

The union also charges that Honeywell violated its new contract by laying off two union employees before letting go two contractors who began working during the lockout.

Furthermore, the union charges that the company has not been obeying the grievance procedure when the union protests a contract violation; instead the company forces the union to send the case to arbitration—i.e., third-party mediation.

“Every day we catch them doing stuff in violation of contract, but we can’t afford to arbitrate all of them,” says Lech. “They are trying to run the union broke, moving everything to arbitration. It costs the local $8,000 per arbitration.“ The main cases that the local has decided to arbitrate are related to the firings of three union activists. 

Seven months after the 13-month lockout at Honeywell ended, some unionists are losing faith in their union's ability to protect them.

“We are going down the road to decertify [the union], because many workers are not happy with contract. It’s not able to be enforced,” Lech says. “We as a union are going to have to take some sort of action to stay alive. We are going to our members and saying. 'Are you ready to go through what we just went through and are you ready to provoke them?'"

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times. 

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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