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Working In These Times

Thursday, May 17, 2012, 12:38 pm

Amid ‘Sabotage’ Investigation, Honeywell Lays Off Plant’s Entire Union Workforce

BY Mike Elk

Last Thursday, May 10, at around 2 p.m., managers walked into Honeywell's uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Ill., and told workers—both union and nonunion—they had to leave the plant immediately. Multiple workers present say a manager explained the sudden dismissal by noting that the company had to investigate "sabotage" of plant equipment.

Since May 10, Honeywell has allowed 100 of 170 nonunion salaried workers to return to work, and has allowed 90 of its 100 nonunion contactors to continue working in the plant. But none of the plant's 168 hourly union employees have been allowed to return to work—the company has informed them that they've been laid-off indefinitely. All laid-off union workers were immediately left without pay and health insurance. In contrast, when Honeywell locked out USW union workers in June 2010, it waited nearly three months to cut off their health insurance.

The Metropolis plant is no stranger to contentious labor relations. In 2010 and 2011, it  was the scene of a tense 13-month long lockout of United Steelworker (USW) members. That dispute was resolved last fall when the union ratified a new contract. Since then, however, the work environment has been tense; several key USW Local 7-669 leaders have been fired by Honeywell. Local 7-669 leaders say Honeywell is trying to bust the union. 

For many workers, the order by management to leave the plant felt like lock-out déjà vu. “I have been through a lockout and it felt like this. If this isn’t a lockout, I don’t know what it is,” Local 7-669 President Stephen Lech says.

But unlike a lockout—a tactic companies sometimes resort to when contract negotiations have stalled—laid-off union members cannot picket the worksite location. If the union did so, a company can claim that the union is engaged in an “illegal strike” and the union would then be subject to heavy fines. Lech says the union is looking into all legal options and being very careful.

“I would not suggest that company would create a circumstance to frame the union, but if they were presented with a circumstance, I know they would love to find a way to use it somehow against the union,” Lech says.

The sudden layoffs may be a violation of their contract language, he says. The contract states that Honeywell must give workers at least five days notice of any layoffs. Metropolis workers were given no notice. “If the circumstance allows it, we will certainly picket and go down the road of action,” says Lech.

Asked Wednesday whether or not the lay-offs were legal, Metropolis plant manager Larry Smith hung up. Honeywell, which is based in New Jersey, did not respond to further request for comment. Company spokesman Peter Dalpe told the Chicago Tribune that he “can't comment on the specific damage, but added that the equipment was not operational.” Dapel also told the Tribune “that the company intends to resume production after it assesses the damages and inspects the plant.”

Joey Ledford, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the plant, told the Chicago Tribune, “We are standing by watching their investigation and we will do our own follow up."

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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